Biological Resource Centers: OECD Calls for Developing a Global Network

D. Jay Grimes, Ronald M. Atlas, and Salomon Wald

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Paris-based body comprised of the world's leading economic countries, has concluded a study of Biological Resource Centers (BRCs) and their role in the advancement of life sciences and biotechnology. The study report calls for the establishment of a global network of BRCs through which biological materials and related information would flow.

What Are BRCs?

As defined by the OECD:

Biological resource centers are an essential part of the infrastructure underpinning life sciences and biotechnology. They consist of service providers and repositories of the living cells, genomes of organisms, and information relating to heredity and the functions of biological systems. BRCs contain collections of culturable organisms (e.g., micro-organisms, plant, animal and human cells), replicable parts of these (e.g., genomes, plasmids, viruses, cDNAs), viable but not yet culturable organisms, cells and tissues, as well as databases containing molecular, physiological and structural information relevant to these collections and related bioinformatics.

In essence, the concept of BRCs replaces that of a traditional bacterial culture collection. The American Type Culture Collection, which now acts as a repository for many plant and animal cell lines and numerous genetic elements, as well as its traditional collections of microbial cultures, already has begun to describe itself as a "global bioresource center."

Why Are BRCs essential?

Living organisms, cells, genes, gene products, and related information or databases are the essential raw materials of biological investigations and are crucial for the advancement of biotechnology, human health, and research and development in the life sciences. Without biological resources, life scientists cannot pursue their research, companies focused on biotechnology cannot develop and market products, and health practitioners cannot elucidate and cure diseases of humans, animals, and plants. On the other hand, when biological resources are made available through reputable and continuously available sources, all of humankind benefits. Given that enormous sums are invested in extracting organisms and their genes from nature and elucidating the genetic and functional molecular elements of those living resources, it is essential that biological resources be not only preserved but also used. By making available biological materials and information of guaranteed identity and quality, BRCs serve an essential infrastructural function for scientific investigation and research and development (R&D). BRCs are essential for R&D in the life sciences; for advances in the quality of the environment, agriculture, and human health; and for commercial development of biotechnology.

Why Establish a Global BRC Network?

The establishment of a global BRC network would provide the framework within which coordination, harmonization, and quality assurance could be provided for the preservation of biodiversity and the international exchange of biological resources. This would enhance the services provided to the global community by BRCs beyond what existing international frameworks could achieve. Specifically, a global BRC network would add value by achieving: (i) linkage between scientific needs and government policies, which is the main reason that the OECD initiated this effort; (ii) an international framework for regulatory initiatives, either directly or through the appropriate national and international authorities; (iii) international cooperation to help prevent inappropriate use of biological resources, for example, terrorism; (iv) a linking mechanism for countries lacking national BRCs, including the ability for countries that cannot create their own BRCs to link with a global system that would help them solve at least some of their problems; and (iv) enhanced efficiency, as a global BRC network would reduce redundancies and improve transparency and efficiency and thus, over time, help participants to harness resources.

What Are the Challenges?

The development, expansion, and survival of BRCs and the establishment of a global BRC network faces many challenges. These include those posed by the molecular revolution (genomics and the information revealed by DNA sequencing), accelerating efforts to conserve biodiversity, funding uncertainties that threaten stability, the need for adequate quality assurance, constraints on access to biological resources within countries and across international borders, private industry's need to protect investments, import and export regulations, intellectual property rights, safety issues, and ethical concerns about the uses of genes and other biological resources. These challenges are far too large for any single nation to solve, and a shared international approach is needed. Only a very few large national centers are currently able to perform a comprehensive role and to provide access to diverse organisms, such as bacterial, fungal, plant, and animal cells, including human genes and cells.

The growing worldwide demand for biological resources will drive a great increase in the number, complexity, and demands for quality of centers. For international trade and global development of the life sciences and biotechnology, BRCs must adhere to rigid standards so that transfer of organisms, cells, cell products, and data can occur worldwide with confidence and reproducibility. BRCs must meet the high standards of quality and expertise demanded by the international community of scientists and industry for the delivery of biological information and materials. As such, the OECD report recommends the establishment of an international system for accreditation that would ensure the quality of a system of national BRCs linked together into a global network.

According to the OECD report, a global BRC network that would enhance access to BRCs and foster international cooperation and economic development must be established to meet the worldwide need for access and quality assurance of biological resources. Specifically, the OECD calls upon governments in concert with the international scientific community to undertake the following actions: (i) to selectively seek to strengthen existing ex situ collections of biological data and materials, create collections of new resources, including in non-OECD countries, and elevate those collections to the quality required for accreditation as national BRCs; (ii) to support the development of an accreditation system for BRCs based upon scientifically acceptable objective international criteria for quality, expertise, and financial stability; (iii) to facilitate international coordination among national BRCs by creating an agreed system of linkage, which should be based upon modern informatics systems that link biological data to biological materials across national BRCs and upon common technological frameworks; (iv) to take into account the objectives and functioning of BRCs when establishing and harmonizing national or international rules and regulations; (v) to develop policies to harmonize the operational parameters under which BRCs function, including those governing access to biological resources as well as their exchange and distribution, taking into account relevant national and international laws and agreements; and (vi) to support the establishment of a global BRC network that would enhance access to BRCs and foster international cooperation and economic development. In line with OECD tradition, the work on BRCs was guided by individual "lead nations" which also provided material support. The development of the BRC report and the formulation of an international consensus was led by Japan, with strong support from others, particularly the United States. The implementation phase will be guided by France, again with strong support from other countries.

Although a major challenge for international cooperation, a global BRC network would greatly improve the conditions under which biological materials are preserved and exchanged. How this challenge is met may affect the future of life sciences and biotechnology for many years to come. Harmonization of regulations for the exchange of dangerous pathogens, which has become especially critical for national security, is a major challenge facing BRCs around the world. It is a challenge that calls for the full support of governments, the scientific community, and the collective international private sector. It is a challenge that can be met with the help of the microbiological community.



American Type Culture Collection (ATCC). 

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Biological resource centres: underpinning the future of life sciences and biotechnology, in press. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris.

Schwartzenberg, R. G. 2001. Installation du comite consultative des resources biologiques. Discours de M. Roger-Gerard Schwartzenberg, minister de la Recherche, Paris, France ( ).