NIGERIAN SCIENTISTS PUBLISH IN NATURE AS AFRICAN BIOGENOME PROJECT SEEKS FUNDS TO SEQUENCE AFRICAN BIODIVERSITY

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By Dr. Justin Eze Ideozu

Survival pressure faced by organisms worldwide poses a cause for concern. Hence, there is global push to generate genomic datasets that will be crucial for the conservation of animal and plant species on earth. In 2019, a team of African scientists initiated a research network known as “Digital Innovations in Africa for Sustainable Agri-Environment and Conservation (DAISEA). This DAISEA network was coordinated by Dr. ThankGod Echezona Ebenezer, Nigerian, who later in 2021, founded African BioGenome Project (AfricaBP; https://africanbiogenome.org) by converging other African scientists around the DAISEA network to snow-ball into the AfricaBP consortium. This ambitious scientific and socio-scientific body aims to utilize genomics (study of structure and function of all genes in living things) and bioinformatics to drive biodiversity conservation, improve agricultural productivity,  as well as accelerate capacity building in the fields of genomics and bioinformatics in Africa.

Dr. ThankGod Echezona Ebenezer

Understanding and cataloguing species genomic information can result in huge beneficial ramifications across several spheres of life including food security, biodiversity conservation, biomedicine, industrial product development and services, and climate change control. Although Africans have fared well in the field of genomics, their impacts or contributions have been felt much more outside the African continent. This underscores the need to converge Africans in the field of genomics to drive the endeavour to strengthen the foothold of this field in Africa. For this reason, AfricaBP will sequence and analyze at least 80% of the projected 105,000 species in Africa.

AfricaBP aspires to achieve sequencing genomes of these 105,000 species of plants, animals, fungi and other organisms in 10 years, with an approximate cost of US$100 million per year. It currently involves 109 African scientists (87 of whom work in Africa) and 22 African organizations. This aspiration has commenced with a Pilot Project that is intended to sequence 2000 species in 3 years. Within one year of its existence, AfricaBP has brought together scientists, corporate and institutional partners to deliver the set targets in Africa. In support of this agenda, the Vertebrate Genome Project (VGP) is sponsoring the sequencing of selected animal species while 10KP is sponsoring the sequencing of 100 plant species. Other groups are showing interest in co-funding genome sequencing of selected species of plants, invertebrates, fish, etc.

Currently, AfricaBP is governed by a Steering Committee with a Chair, Professor Anne Muigai (Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Kenya), and 5 Co-Chairs which include Professor Julian O. Osuji (University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria), Dr. ThankGod Echezona Ebenezer (EMBL-EBI, UK), Dr. Cathrine Ziyomo (ILRI, Kenya), Prof Appolinaire Djikeng (CTLGH, Edinburgh, UK) and Prof. Olivia Ntanga Mapholi, UNISA, South Africa). Professor Julian O. Osuji, from the University of Port Harcourt, who is also the Chair, Genomics for the Conservation of Endangered and Endemic Species spearheads the West African Regional Node and the Nigerian National Node of the AfricaBP. At present, AfricaBP has a Pilot Project Committee and several sub-committees that constitute the genome sequencing pipeline.

Prof. Julian Osuji

Led by Dr ThankGod Ebenezer, a Position paper that defines the strategic programme and initial strives of the African BioGenome Project was submitted to Nature Journal. In the 603rd  Volume of Nature Journal, the Position Paper titled: “Africa: Sequence 100,000 species to safeguard African biodiversity” was recently published. This paper which has Twenty-one AfricaBP scientists, including Professor Julian O. Osuji, as authors and another twenty-two as Co-Signatories emphasized the essence of biodiversity genomics in securing food security and biodiversity conservation in Africa. The publication, which has been featured by several non-African and African media groups including Science Direct and Altmetric among others have described the article as a superlative and highly resourceful masterpiece. Altimetric, a research publication evaluation medium described the publication as being in the class of top 5 % of research outputs scored by Altimetric. In the words of Altimetric, “We’re also able to compare this research output to 623 others from the same source and published within six weeks on either side of this one. This AfricaBP Position paper has done well, scoring higher than 85 % of its contemporaries”. Several other similar ratings are internationally available for this publication.

Most projects that aim to study, conserve, or improve biological diversity in Africa have been led by researchers outside the continent. Often, African researchers who contribute to data collection in such projects are not always credited for their work. A 2021 study by Rees et al. revealed that about 15 % of 32,061 articles on global health research conducted in sub-Saharan Africa had no authors based in the country in which the research took place. This leaves Africa out of the global genome sequencing efforts. In addition, thousands of African species have been ignored by the global genomics community.

In 2010, nations adopted the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefits Sharing to ensure that the benefits arising from the use of biological resources are shared fairly. Certainly, any benefit derived from the genetic resources obtained through AfricaBP should be shared by the people of Africa — whether it be a superior strain of drought-resistant sugar beet (Beta macrocarpa Guss) or new drugs derived from the rooibos plant (Aspalathus linearis), or neem plant (Azadirachta indica) or the small fish (Bostrychus africanus) that sustains larger fishes in the Niger Delta mangrove creeks. The Nagoya Protocol has gaps when it comes to Africa. It fails to take into account the customs and practices of the diverse ethnic groups across the continent. These might not be documented or written into law but have shaped how people interact with certain plants or animals for hundreds — sometimes thousands — of years. In West Africa, for example, some communities forbid the cutting down or harming of iroko trees, which are thought to have supernatural powers. AfricaBP acknowledges these issues and have formed an Ethics, Social, and Legal Issues [ELSI] sub-committee that will develop and implement strategies to ensure all AfricaBP activities are conducted and applied responsibly. 

In previous efforts, since 2009, $22 million has been spent on building bioinformatics capacity across Africa through the Pan African Bioinformatics Network for H3Africa (H3ABioNet) project — including through training 150 researchers in core bioinformatics approaches and technologies. But around 10–15 % of the trainees in this Africa-led project have relocated to North America or Europe, and there is no guarantee that they will return. What’s more, H3ABioNet funding winds down this year, and there are few permanent positions for trained bioinformatics personnel in African institutions. Because of this, up to 50 % of the researchers who have received training through H3ABioNet could leave Africa. The Nelson Mandela Foundation has elected to support AfricaBP and have the Pilot animal sequencing program named after it. There is also an effort to have a Pilot plant sequencing project identify with Wangari Maathai of Kenya. Many of such identification efforts are on course.

What is the case of Nigeria? It is well-known that Nigeria is very rich in biodiversity, but this biodiversity wealth has been neglected over the years. In fact, most of the species have become endangered and red-listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This leaves an urgent need to deploy biodiversity genomics for conservation of the species including wildlife, orphaned crops, medicinal herbs, and industrially resourceful raw materials-yielding species. Lack of the will to keep to well-planned and sustained strategic civil and industrial development have become a major trait to survival of the critical Nigerian biodiversity. The Nigerian public and private sectors are encouraged to invest heavily in AfricaBP to secure and conserve Nigeria’s biodiversity. The Nigerian Node is currently seeking fund to cover sequencing of eighty (80) of the endangered species found in Nigeria. The fund required in the first four years of this project is one hundred and thirty-five million Naira (N135m). This project, if funded, will be tagged with an identity desired by the financier just like the Nelson Mandela Animal Conservation of Nature and Wangari Maathai Plant sequencing projects. There is also the Aroid genome sequencing project domiciled in University of Port Harcourt in the Nigerian Node. This project would require about thirty million Naira (N30m) as enabling fund. Nigeria mangrove sequencing fund can sponsor sequencing of all the mangrove species found in Nigeria. There is also need for Medicinal plants genome sequencing project. Several other projects can be funded as determined or required by the funding agents to support the Nigerian or West African Nodes of AfricaBP. The funding agent determines what will be funded and the project’s nomenclature.

Public and Private Sectors in Nigeria have huge role to play in driving the AfricaBP Nigeria initiative. For instance, Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Nigeria Tertiary Education Fund (Tetfund), Bank of Agriculture (BOA), Bank of Industry (BOI) and other capable public sector bodies or establishments in Nigeria can take advantage of sponsoring these projects to make indelible contributions to conservation of Nigerian biodiversity, add value to life and immortalize their identities.

Private establishments and Foundations in Nigeria such as Dangote Foundation, Tony Elumelu Foundation, President Obasanjo Otta Farms, Innoson Motors, Oil producing companies such as Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), Shell Nigeria Exploration Company (SNEPCO), Mobil Producing Nigeria, Nigerian Agip Oil Company (NAOC), Heirs Holding Oil & Gas Limited, Sterling Oil Explorations & Energy Production Company, SEEPCO Limited, Conoil, Oando plc, and others could invest in this project as a way of contributing to biodiversity conservation in Nigeria and as a means of giving back to their operational environment.

Dr. Justin Eze Ideozu is a Senior Scientist in Genomic Medicine. He is currently the co-Chair of the Ethics, Legal, and Social Issues (ELSI) sub-committee of Africa Biogenome Project.

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