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Biodiversity is dwindling at an unsetting rate throughout the world and it has been estimated that 50 species become extinct daily

Dec 19 - 25, 2005

There is lucrative global market for the products derived from bioresources. Thus if the goal of converting our bioresources - animal, plant, microbial and marine - into commercially useful products and processes is to be realized, we need not only to conserve the biodiversity, but also utilize it in a sustainable manner.

The combined global market for products derived from bioresources is roughly between US $ 500 billion and US $ 800 billion. Pakistan is also blessed with all types of climates, which give rise to a myriad of natural flora and fauna, some of which are in the danger of extinction. The varied cultural diversity across the country as well as a very ancient traditional knowledge system associated with the biodiversity represents added assets.

Biodiversity is dwindling at an unsetting rate throughout the world and it has been estimated that 50 species become extinct daily and it has been projected that by 2020, 15 percent of biodiversity will be lost. More than half of plant and animal species live exclusively in the rain forests of the third world.

The commercial potential of biodiversity has driven pharmaceutical and biotechnological companies to seek out and extract useful biological resources before it is too late. The top 150 prescription drugs sold in the USA, 57 percent are derived from natural resources. Most antibacterial agents (78 percent) and anticancer compounds (61 percent) available worldwide are derived from natural sources.

Likewise, marine derived therapeutics has a great potential. Marine ecosystem represents 95 percent of the biosphere, and coastal regions are particularly promising because of highly adopted species found in these harsh environments. Animals, especially venomous species, have provided a highly rewarding source of new drugs.

Biodiversity prospecting is the exploration, extraction and screening of biological diversity and indigenous knowledge for commercially valuable genetic and biochemical resources. While it is true that such prospecting does not always involve the use of indigenous knowledge, it is clear that valuable chemical compounds derived from plants, animals and micro-organisms are more easily identified and prove to be of great commercial value when collected with indigenous knowledge and or found in territories - traditionally inhabited by indigenous peoples.

Biodiversity prospecting is not new, of course. "Take-and -run" describe the old approach to collecting, lately dubbed "bio-piracy". The recorded history of international plant collecting missions goes back at least 3500 years when Egyptian rulers began bringing plants home after military expeditions. In the last century, the British Empire instituted regular plant collection.

Thus, if the goal of converting our bioresources - animal, plant microbial and marine - into commercially useful products and processes to be realized, we need not only to conserve the biodiversity but also utilize it in a sustainable manner. In this context, absence of a good quantitive information network on bioresources combining remote-sensing data and ground surveys is a major constraint. The situation is even worse for micro-organisms. Field and marine biologists rarely work with molecular scientists and chemists, pharmacologists or other experts, and there is partially no bioprospecting, ethics and equity should be our guiding principles in benefit sharing. Pakistan has 11 distinct climate zones and 10 agro-ecological zones ranging from mountains, dry land and mangroves comprising rich biodiversity. Degradation and encroachment of natural forests, rangelands and freshwater and marine ecosystems are resulting in loss of biodiversity. Nearly 10 ecosystems of particular value for species richness and uniqueness of their floral and faunal communities are considered to be critically threatened.


Pakistan is home to a number of animals representing significant global diversity. However, degradation of ecosystems is resulting in loss of biodiversity. At least four mammal species, including tiger, swamp deer, lion and Indian one horned rhinoceros, are known to have become extinct from Pakistan. The degree of endemism is high and populations of several animal groups are diminishing due to habitat destruction and poaching. Several species, their products and services rendered by them are crucial to our economic well-being; pollination services by insects (e.g., honey bees, bumble bees, moths, butterflies, beetles) to our agricultural and forestry crops, honey, silk, lac, musk, skins are just a few examples. Other species (e.g. mollusks, frogs, toads, spiders, termites and snakes) represent potential reservoirs of useful products such as toxins, enzymes, therapeutic molecules and other bioactive substances. Prospecting for these and other products should be a priority. Biotechnology should be effectively employed for molecular characterization along with bioscreens in search of useful products. Utilization of selected species as bioreactors for production of complex proteins is another important opportunity.


Pakistan has a huge treasure of plant resources. Northern areas are blessed with rich sources of plants, so these are fascinating the pharmaceutical industries of developed countries. A large number of NGOs are working in these areas for so called conservation of medicinal plants. There is a plant around Kaghan valley, which is sold at Rs. 6000 per kg. by local people to be exported to a developed country. Genetic erosion is rampant and conservation should be priority. Prospecting of wild plant resources using molecular approach and mechanism based screening may be used to identify novel genes (temperature, drought, salinity tolerant) and gene products (therapeutic, dyes, essential oils, biocontrol agents, gums, resins and toxins).

There are potential ornamentals, including foliage - and flower- bearing plants that could be bulked up to be subsequently cultivated on large scale for domestic and international trade. Bioconversion-both cellular and microbial- should be employed to convert intermediates of secondary metabolism into value added products. Application of genomics, proteomics and metabolomics in carefully selected plants will be very useful. Biotechnology should also be utilized to add value to our traditional knowledge especially Ayurveda, Sidha and Unani systems as well as tribal and folk medicine. Medicinal plants are also the prime targets of bioprospecting. Besides, the tools of biotechnology can be used for conservation and characterization of plants.

The petroleum industry now looks very committed to the use of ethanol as fuel. Being one of the largest producers of agro products, including sugarcane, Pakistan should take a lead in this worldwide effort of promoting sustainable development. Broad genetic base is very important from the point of view of resistance against virus and disease and adaptability. For this purpose, germplasm should be colleted from different countries.

The FAO estimates, that there are roughly a quarter million plant varieties available for agriculture, but less than three percent of these are in use today. With disease comes neglect and possibly extinction. Modern agriculture is concentrated on a small number of varieties designed for intensive farming. This has dramatically reduced the diversity of plants available for research and development. This trend and the increasing industrialization of agriculture are key factors in what is known as "genetic erosion". The world's food supply depends on about 150 plant species. Of these 150, just 12 provide three-quarters of the world's food. More than half of the world food energy comes from a limited number of varieties of three mega crops, rice, wheat and maize.


Currently only five percent microbes are cultured but there are others of considerable potential value that need to be characterized by new and novel techniques. The five percent culturable microbes have been a source of valuable products. Pakistan should play a role in the study and utilization of microbial resources. The priorities should be preparation of inventories based on primary and secondary data; exploration of micro flora in the northern region of the country, and extreme habitats (hydrothermal units, deep sea sediments, highly acidic, alkaline and anaerobic regions, degraded ecosystems etc.) for discovery of novel bioactive molecules; uncultivable microbes through appropriate molecular approaches.


The economic zone of the sea as a source of novel genes and gene products-biopolymers, novel enzymes, new therapeutic leads, and other value-added products such as osmo-tolerant crops-has hardly been explored. Marine organisms also present immense potential as biosensors for pollution monitoring as well as bioreactors for production of novel products. Besides the study of deep-sea organisms including marine microbes has tremendous implication for human health.

Expertise in these diverse areas is scattered across a number of agencies/institutions. Strategic actions should be in the following areas"


* There is shortage of expertise in Pakistan particularly in taxonomy (the science of the classification of the living and extinct organisms) and microbial ecology. There is a need to take urgent steps to rectify this.

* Support the capacity building in microbial taxonomy through intensive training programmes at graduate and post-graduate levels.

* Promotion of horizontal networking between remote sensing experts, field biologists and computer specialists for inventorisation of bioresources based both on primary and secondary sources of information.

* Promotion of closer and effective interaction between biotechnologists, foresters, oceanographers and field biologists.

* Ensure that the use of bioresources be sustainable by regulating the harvesting of medicinal plants.

* Formulate a policy to regulate the procurement and sale of medicinal plants in Pakistan. Introduce regulatory norms that evaluate the efficacy, safety and quality of herbal products.

* Establish a close working relationship between field scientists, pharmacologists and clinicians so that an all round integration is achieved.

* Public-private partnerships need to be promoted for product generation.

* Creation of a gene bank for maintaining "mined genes".

* There should be international depository authority in the country for Microbial Type Culture Collection, for securing our intellectual proprietary rights. The authority should have expertise or facilities for this purpose.

* End products from bioprospecting need to be tested for variety of parameters before commercial production can begin. There is a need to set up appropriate facilities for such late stage testing of products.

* An autonomous center for marine biodiversity is proposed to be set up.

* An autonomous institute for herbal medicine is proposed to be established.

The author is from Department of Agronomy, University of Agriculture, Faisalabad.


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