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FOOD SECURITY AND BIODIVERSITY CONSERVATION
Justin Eze Ideozu canvasses for funds for two Nigerian scientists seeking to sequence African biodiversity
Survival pressure faced by organisms worldwide poses a cause for concern. 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. Thus, there is global push to generate genomic datasets that will be crucial for the conservation of animals, plants and other species on earth. On this basis, a team of African scientists in 2019 initiated a research network known as “Digital Innovations in Africa for Sustainable Agri-Environment and Conservation (DAISEA). This DAISEA network was initiated and coordinated by Dr. ThankGod Echezona Ebenezer, a Nigerian, who later in 2021 founded African BioGenome Project (AfricaBP; https://africanbiogenome.org) by converging other African scientists around the DAISEA network to snowball 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.
Currently, AfricaBP is governed by a Steering Committee with a Chair, Professor Anne Muigai (Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Kenya), and five Co-Chairs which include Prof. Julian O. Osuji (University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria) and Dr. ThankGod Echezona Ebenezer (EMBL-EBI, UK). Prof. Osuji is also the Chair, Genomics for the Conservation of Endangered and Endemic Species, and spearheads the West African Regional Node and the Nigerian National Node of the AfricaBP. Presently, AfricaBP has a Pilot Project Committee and several sub-committees striving to deliver its goals. Within one year of its existence, AfricaBP has brought together scientists, corporate and institutional partners to deliver the set targets in Africa. AfricaBP community now involves 109 African scientists and 22 African organizations. The Position paper authored by Dr. Ebenezer, Prof. Osuji and others was recently published in Nature Journal. The Position Paper entitled: “Africa: Sequence 100,000 species to safeguard African biodiversity” emphasized the essence of biodiversity genomics in securing food security and biodiversity conservation in Africa.
AfricaBP aspires to sequence genomes of 105,000 species (including plants, animals, fungi, and other organisms) in 10 years, with an approximate cost of US$100 million per year; and has commenced its pilot project aimed at sequencing 2000 species in three years. 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. Through the strategic functionality of the AfricaBP’s Open Institute Chaired by Dr. Charlotte Chichi Ndiribe (University of Lagos), to improve sharing of data and benefits of this BioGenome initiative, knowledge gathered from the sequencing pipelines shall be disseminated to Africans through a capacity building process.
AfricaBP acknowledges that certain issues need to be considered for the initiative to meet its goals. On this note, Ethics, Social, and Legal Issues [ELSI] sub-committee was constituted to develop and implement strategies to ensure all AfricaBP activities are conducted and applied responsibly. AfricaBP will follow the recommendations of the Nagoya Protocol to ensure that benefits arising from genetic resources are shared fairly.
What is the case in Nigeria? Nigeria’s rich biodiversity has been neglected over the years, with most species becoming endangered and red-listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Thus, there is an urgent need to deploy, in Nigeria, biodiversity genomics for the conservation of species including wildlife, orphaned crops, medicinal herbs, and industrially resourceful raw materials-yielding species. Failure to keep to strategic civil and industrial development plans that are sustainable has become a major threat to the 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 a pilot fund to cover the sequencing of about 80 endangered species found in Nigeria. The fund required in the first three years of this project is 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 the University of Port Harcourt in the Nigerian Node. This project would require about N30m as enabling fund. Other genome sequencing projects that require funds include Nigeria’s Mangrove Genome Sequencing Project and Medicinal Plants Genome Sequencing project. Several other sequencing projects can be funded to support the Nigerian or West African Nodes of AfricaBP.
Public and Private Sectors in Nigeria have a 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.
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 the Africa BioGenome Project