Some of the last remaining primary forests of Southeast Asia are found in Borneo, a biodiversity hotspot where you can still walk through ancient forests and prehistoric caves. The heavy wing beats of helmeted hornbills brings you a little closer to what it may have been like when pterodactyls dominated the skies. Even today, countless new and exotic species remain to be discovered on the island.
But population growth and industrial development are inevitably contributing to an increasing loss of biodiversity: Borneo has lost 25% of its forests since the mid-1980s, much of that due to converting virgin forest into oil palm plantations.
However, the incredible richness of Borneo’s forests offers the opportunity for a sustainable future for both the wildlife and people of Borneo. Nestled amidst the giant trees and lushness of the rainforest, a biotech center in Malaysian Borneo is working to establish a new bioeconomy based on knowledge rather than resource usage.
Initially charged with inventorying the species richness in the rainforest, the Sarawak Biodiversity Center (SBC) has quickly transformed into an active steward of Borneo’s biodiversity. At the helm of SBC is Dr. Yeo Tiong Chia, a Borneo native who returned to Sarawak after obtaining his PhD in the U.S. As a boy, he saw the forests burned and replaced with oil palm. As a scientist, he now works incessantly to expand the center’s activities to help unlock the biotechnological potential of Borneo’s biodiversity before more of it is lost.
From left to right, Roddiem Anak Sabod from the Bidayuh tribe; one of the 27 ethnic groups in Sarawak, Dr. Yeo Tiong Chia and Prince Charles Dr. Yeo Tiong Chia
Biodiversity: a cornerstone of modern antibiotics
Many of the antibiotics we use these days are so-called natural products. As the name implies, natural products are substances found in and produced by nature, and that have evolved desirable properties like activity against infectious microbes. Vancomycin — an antibiotic which has saved countless lives — is a perfect example of a natural product, discovered from a soil sample collected in Borneo.
Today, vancomycin is made via fermentation by specially engineered microbes that have the vancomycin chemical pathway pasted into their genomes. Over time, though, microbes evolve in response to the widespread use of drugs antibiotics. This gives rise to antibiotic resistance, and the need for newer, better drugs produced by nature.
Leveraging Borneo’s biodiversity to make the world a better place
That’s where the SBC’s work is focused. It has established a natural resource library consisting of over 25,000 extracts from plants and 29,000 from microbes. This library allows scientists to access the genetic richness of the rainforest without having to fend off venomous snakes or endure arduous jungle treks to collect materials. The extracts are shared with partners from industry and academia in a joint effort to bioprospect Sarawak’s biodiversity and advance SBC’s research.
Biodiversity is not only sustainable but also economically beneficial. The Aglaia tree produces silvestrol, an anti-cancer and antiviral compound important for therapeutic purposes. Dr. Charlie Yeo
One example is silvestrol, an anti-cancer and antiviral compound produced by Borneo’s Aglaia tree. Protected by a patent owned by Sarawak, silvestrol exhibits anticancer activity comparable to existing chemotherapeutic agents but based on a unique mechanism of action. With cancer drugs being worth up to $6.49B, with a growing market there is much to gain if the drug proves promising. More recently, silvestrol has also been reported to inhibit Ebola, Chikungunya, Zika and Hepatitis E in the lab. Research on the compound is being accelerated in collaborative projects in the USA, Germany, and other countries.
Bio-renewables are another area of opportunity for biodiverse regions, and microalgae are a particular topic of interest in Borneo. Microalgae are sun-powered, single-celled organisms that can be used as animal feed but are also capable of producing sugars and oils in sufficient quantities that they could be used as fuels and industrial chemicals. The search for new metabolites includes DNA studies of rare species, e.g. whole genome sequencing of novel microbes.
In a collaboration with Mitsubishi Corporation and CHITOSE Group, SBC helped make possible the launch one of the largest microalgae cultivation facility of its kind in Southeast Asia. Through the partnership, SBC has established a pipeline from curation of local algal species to commercialization of products derived from those same algae.
These collaborations illustrate how public companies in the emerging bioeconomy can play a key role by supporting research, education, and the development of local expertise.
Integrating local communities in the discovery process
On another front, SBC is also pioneering new ways of integrating local communities in the process of discovering new uses of Sarawak’s biodiversity. Many of the plants analyzed have been identified from the traditional knowledge of local ethnic groups gathered under access and benefits sharing agreements.
In March of this year, SBC became the first institution in Malaysia to sign and implement the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing with its local indigenous communities. In working towards governance of genetic resources and traditional knowledge that is fair and equitable, the SBC is a leader in the region on how a country protects and shares the benefits of its biological resources.
In the last two decades, building on the traditional knowledge of its indigenous communities, science research in Borneo has revealed value of its biodiversity at a molecular level. Preserving existing forests is essential to finding unique species that not only have great economic value but also incredible impact on human health and well-being.
SBC in Sarawak is a leading example of building a biodiversity-based regional bioeconomy. It’s a story
of development that we need to hear more of not just in Southeast Asia, but around the globe.