Global Health

How a giant Amazonian frog could help save millions of lives

A Taipei tree frog climbs a leaf in Tucheng, Taipei County, July 21, 2010. The Taipei tree frogs are endemic to Taiwan. REUTERS/Pichi Chuang (TAIWAN)

The skin of a frog that lives in the Amazon rainforest could help solve the antibiotic resistance crisis. Image: REUTERS/Pichi Chuang

Rob Smith
Writer, Forum Agenda
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Antimicrobial resistance, which essentially renders antibiotics ineffective, is “the biggest crisis of the 21st century,” according to Space Time Ventures chairman Juan Carlos Castilla-Rubio, who spoke at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, in January.

This resistance is due largely to antibiotics being overused in medicine and agriculture. Furthermore, no new class of antibiotics has been introduced since 1987, and without new antibiotics being developed deaths from antimicrobial resistance will increase to 10 million people per year by 2050, according to research commissioned by the UK government.

Castilla-Rubio, however, pointed out that bio-innovation could help save lives.

The giant monkey frog could be a source of new antibiotics Image: Wikimedia Commons/Jean-Marc Hero

Could frogs hold the answer?

Castilla-Rubio explained that giant monkey frogs could be a source of new antibiotics. Data from the National Center for Biotechnology Information shows frog skin is the source of 300 different antimicrobial peptides, which target viruses and bacteria.

And it’s not just frogs. Another possible solution to the antibiotics crisis can be found in most ants, according to a study published by The Royal Society, which reveals that many ant species also produce antimicrobial secretions. Those that don’t, the researchers say, have developed alternative strategies to defend themselves, which could also be beneficial to humans.

Castilla-Rubio added that the Amazon rainforest could be a source of up to 25% – or more than 282,000 – of the known natural compounds that could be used to create new and improved medicines, including antibiotics.

Using the natural world as a source of inspiration and innovation could also help unlock a diversity-based “bio-economy” worth trillions of US dollars, Castilla-Rubio said.

The Amazon could help unlock a new bio-economy Image: REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

Dealing with the threats

Castilla-Rubio warned that to unlock this bio-economy and make it inclusive, we need to deal with three challenges head-on.

Firstly, deforestation, which severely threatens the Amazon. Secondly, it is critical that sharing information benefits all people fairly and equitably. Lastly, we need to deal with very complex regulations "because biology is increasingly digital and increasingly engineered,” according to Castilla-Rubio.

The Amazon Bank of Codes

In an effort to create a solution, Castilla-Rubio helped launch the Amazon Bank of Codes, an open “public good” digital platform used to map the biological assets and functions of the Amazon, making them visible in a fair and equitable way.

Amazon Bank of Codes calls for assets to be shared Image: Earth Bank of Codes

“Because we are mapping life in the Amazon, the assets will be accessible and available to innovators, and because we will register these assets on a blockchain, you will know that when you source components of innovation for commercial plans, you are sourcing innovation that is sustainable,” Castilla-Rubio explained.

He hopes that once the benefits of the Amazon have been shared fairly and equitably, the bank will be replicated worldwide to form the Earth Bank of Codes, which will codify rights and obligations.

“You will know when you exploit [the Amazon's assets], you can share the benefits fairly with the countries of origin and with the custodians of nature," Castilla-Rubio said. "[Y]ou will have access to the ‘Wikipedia of life.’"

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