Biodiversity biobanks: an invaluable resource for the future

By Samantha Luciano

Biodiversity biobanks are less well known than their biomedical counterparts, but they represent an invaluable asset for meeting the global health and environmental challenges of our century. Whether they are home to animal, plant or micro-organism collections, these infrastructures contribute to research and development in many fields, including medical and veterinary treatments, breeding and reproduction, environment and conservation, agro-industry and biotechnology.

The major advantage of biodiversity biobanks is the variety of samples and taxa present in these collections: tissues, fluids, whole specimens, cell cultures, DNA or RNA from most of the vertebrate and invertebrate species on our planet.

The contribution of biodiversity biobanks to global health

While zoonotic pathogens (those transmitted to humans by animals through direct animal contact, food, water or environment) are responsible for about 75% of emerging infectious disease outbreaks, our knowledge of their biology, origin, pathogenicity and phylogenetic coverage remains limited.[1]

One of the most striking examples today is the outbreak of COVID-19, the exact origin of which is still disputed. In retrospect, we can also cite:
• numerous animal viruses causing influenzas (Spanish, avian flu) but also HIV, ZIKA, Ebola, rabies and recently monkeypox
• bacteria causing human diseases such as brucellosis or plague
• or rarer forms of transmission such as Creutzfeldt–Jakob (mad cow) disease through prions.

In its December 2020 report, the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) wrote: ‘future pandemics will occur more often, spread more rapidly, cause more damage to the global economy and kill more people than COVID-19 if nothing is done’.

Coronaviruses can be present in various animals such as bats, without affecting them, but are capable of infecting humans, image: Shutterstock/Naeblys

In practical terms, how can biodiversity biobanks help advance global health research?

By accumulating animal, plant or micro-organism resources, these biorepositories allow a wide range of research to be carried out in a controlled, secure and high-quality manner. As the samples are carefully processed, optimally preserved and accompanied by a vast amount of data, they allow researchers from all over the world to conduct their work in any field.

For example, access to the resources of biodiversity biobanks could make it possible to make progress on recurrent themes such as the fight against cancer: as certain animal species are resistant to it, such as bats, grey squirrels, whales, elephants or even horses[2], they would make it possible to understand the mechanisms of tumour development and thus help to create new therapies for humans. But the samples could also help research into neglected tropical diseases such as schistosomiasis, an acute and chronic disease caused by parasitic worms invading intermediate hosts such as snails, of which the MCF is a global repository through the SCAN collection.

Biodiversity samples can be used in different kinds of experiments: histopathology, toxicology, parasitology, serology, image Shutterstock/Gorodenkoff

What about the environment?

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, 0.04% of the known species on the Earth’s surface have disappeared since 1500, representing 897 different taxa. While this figure may seem difficult to imagine given the immense diversity of our planet, scientists are now sounding the alarm about a phenomenon that is no longer fictitious: the 6th mass extinction – as a reminder, the 5th mass extinction 65 million years ago wiped the dinosaurs off the map – due in particular to global warming and the impact of humans on the environment (urbanisation, agriculture, etc.).

In 2021, again according to IUCN figures, 18.3% of vertebrate species, 22.8% of invertebrates, 40% of plants and 28% of fungi and protists have acquired the status of Endangered Species. This represents 28% of our biodiversity.[3]

Vertebrates tend to get more attention, but all categories of living creatures are under threat, image Shutterstock/YueStock

What are the advantages of biodiversity biobanks in this race against time?

Many biorepositories focus their activities on species conservation, genomics research and taxon diversity. Thus, several networks have emerged over the past decades to create ‘life banks’ and ‘genetic data libraries’ such as the Global Genome Biodiversity Network (GGBN), aiming to provide genome-quality samples, and their metadata, from the entire tree of life for research, training and development, thus contributing to the conservation of the world’s genetic diversity for future generations.

In fact, facilities such as the Molecular Collection Facility are involved in projects such as the Frozen Ark, which aims to facilitate access to collections of frozen biological material from numerous institutions (museums, zoos, aquariums, universities, associations, etc.), to organise, protect and preserve DNA and viable cells of vulnerable species around the world. The MCF also has other very varied collections such as those from the CryoArks and Darwin Tree of Life projects dedicated to UK biodiversity, and a very important collections of pollinators, which are essential for the reproduction of plant species and contribute to the preservation of biodiversity and crop productivity.

There are many challenges ahead

In the best of all possible worlds, these institutions would make it possible to preserve all species, to have copies of biological and genetic material of all taxa, or even specimens of each species, as is the case with the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, to be able to conserve all resources indefinitely, and above all to be able to share all resources by making them accessible.

But the reality is quite different because, although of vital importance, biodiversity biobanks face many challenges, starting with the lack of financial support and political will.

In 2021, the UK Biobank, the UK’s largest biomedical biobank, which collects genetic and biological data on 500,000 participants, was allocated a budget of £244.3 million (≃ 288.4 million euros).[4] In comparison, the MCF has just under 0.01% of this figure (exact budget confidential). An incredible difference that does not seem to take into account the resources needed to maintain the infrastructure and respect quality standards, the qualified personnel including field experts (naturalists, biologists, zoologists, botanists, etc.), laboratory experts (technicians, engineers, etc.), data managers, etc.

These infrastructures are also cruelly lacking in visibility, with few scientific publications about them and poor representations in international conferences of the biobanking community, considered much lower priority than medical clinical biobanking, even though human health depends entirely on healthy biodiverse ecosystems. This ultimately makes it a rather closed environment where everyone knows each other and tries to fight to change things.

The treasures accumulated over the years by millions of scientists and carefully preserved need special attention. Remnants of the past, they will be our strength for the future.

References

[1] Challenges on the development of biodiversity biobanks: the living archives of biodiversity. Biopreserv Biobank. 2022 Feb 7. doi: 10.1089/bio.2021.0127. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 35133889.

[2] Mechanisms of cancer resistance in long-lived mammals. Nat Rev Cancer. 2018 Jul;18(7):433-441. doi: 10.1038/s41568-018-0004-9. PMID: 29622806; PMCID: PMC6015544.

[3] IUCN Red List summary statistics.

[4] Funding awards to UK Biobank.


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