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