Strict biodiversity laws prevent Indian scientists from sharing new microbes with the world

Klebsiella indica, isolated from the surface of a tomato, is one of the few microbial species reported by Indian researchers this year.

National Centre for Cell Science

Praveen Rahi spent the better part of the past 3 years identifying and describing a new species of a nitrogen-fixing bacteria he discovered on peas cultivated in the mountains of northern India. But it could take years for Rahi, a microbial ecologist at India’s National Centre for Cell Science (NCCS), to get the new species validated and officially named—if he doesn’t get scooped.

Syed Dastager, a microbiologist at the country’s National Chemical Laboratory, faces a similar problem. He says he has discovered 30 new microbial species over the past several years, but they all sit in his laboratory freezer, unknown to the world, because he can’t publish about them.

These scientists, like many others, are caught in a strange bureaucratic limbo between India’s stringent biodiversity protection laws and the rules of the International Committee on Systematics of Prokaryotes (ICSP), which validates newly discovered microbes. “As a country, we now face the prospect of losing the claim to document bacterial diversity from India,” Yogesh Shouche, a microbial taxonomist at NCCS, wrote in an editorial in Current Science last month that called attention to the problem.

ICSP’s code stipulates that newly discovered bacterial species—or any other microbial taxon—should be deposited in two culture collections in two countries, where it should be freely accessible to other researchers. But that requirement is at odds with an Indian law passed in 2002 under the International Convention on Biological Diversity. The Biological Diversity Act requires that non-Indian researchers who want to access cultures originating from India, even those stored abroad, obtain permission from the country’s National Biodiversity Authority (NBA).

This can cause lengthy delays, and culture collections around the world have increasingly stopped accepting new cultures from Indian researchers. “We have sent emails several times to [NBA] asking about the access availability of Indian resources. However, we didn’t get any replies until now,” reads an email from the Korean Collection for Type Cultures sent to a researcher in Shouche’s lab. “For this reason, we have decided not to take Indian resources/strains from now on.”

Failure to deposit a new taxon in two culture collections means researchers miss out on publication in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology, ICSP’s official journal, a prerequisite for validation. “This is where we are stuck right now,” Shouche says.

A total of 378 new microbial species were discovered in India between 2008 and 2019, in places ranging from pristine glaciers to grimy mobile phone screens. But then the consequences of the 2002 act began to sink in, and after a peak of more than 50 species in 2016, the number began to decline rapidly, with only 10 new species reported so far this year. “Now everyone’s aware and the full implications are coming into the picture,” Shouche says.

Some Indian researchers have given up and focused on other topics instead. “I could’ve described 10 or 12 species by now, but I only have five,” Rahi says. “The process is so irritating, many times you drop the idea entirely.” Dastager has shifted his research focus from microbial taxonomy to small molecules and metabolites: “After putting years of work behind it, if you cannot publish it, then what is the point?”

The best solution would be to amend the biodiversity act to allow the deposition and use of cultures for research purposes without approval from NBA, Shouche says. Most culture collections have mechanisms to prevent biopiracy. But changing the law would take many years.

In the meantime, Shouche and others have proposed a stopgap solution. The law grants NBA the right to delegate some of its responsibilities—and in principle, they could be shifted to designated culture collections in India that are managed by scientists, not government officials. Although ICSP and culture collections abroad no longer want to deal with NBA, they are willing to work with Indian repositories, he says, which could make culture transfers much faster and easier. “Then the problem is solved,” Shouche says.

Researchers have warned before that the red tape associated with the Convention on Biological Diversity, designed to protect countries from losing control of their biodiversity, could have unintended consequences. In India, one of those is ironic, Shouche notes: The country is unable to document its own microbial riches. “The claim on this wealth is meaningless if we cannot document it.”

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