[VIEWPOINT] Korea Needs to Log Biological Resources

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[VIEWPOINT] Korea Needs to Log Biological Resources

The whole world is under the spell of "genetic fever." The mapping of the human genetic code has been completed, the cloning of cattle, mice and monkeys has been accomplished and there are prospects of realizing human cloning in the near future.

But in the biotechnology sector, Korea is following behind advanced countries, just as it does in every high-tech science. With a limited budget, the government struggles to promote such high-tech ventures as the bio Korea project, communications satellite launching and development of nano-technology.

There is no guarantee of the success of these projects. In that sense, the Korean government is engaged in venture businesses. It is necessary on the part of the Korean government to identify its own high-tech field that does not overlap those of advanced countries. To catch up with those countries' technology development, Korea should try to consolidate basic capabilities of its scientific research. In the advent of a "Bio Age," Korea's weak point lies in its frail knowledge of its own biological resources.

The number of species recorded as having lived in the Korean Peninsula is approximately 29,000, but it is estimated that only one fourth of that total is surviving now. Furthermore, almost nothing is known about which of the existing species are disappearing and how rapidly. Measures to prevent such disappearance are problematic, because few studies have been made about biological species and there is little accumulated information.

The leaders of our society should acknowledge that about half of the estimated 20,000 species that remained in 1985 have disappeared in just 10 years time. And they have to realize that over 2.5 million samples of species inherent in Korean Peninsula have been shipped to Japan and East European countries. Also the number of endemic animal species in the Korea Peninsula is estimated to be about 3,000, but only one fifth of that number are represented in Korea today by standard biological samples.

The ecosystem of the Korean Peninsula has become shredded like a spider web. This happens because there are no institutions for public education in preventing extinction and collecting and studying biological samples.

Approximately 2.5 billion samples of flora and fauna are preserved worldwide. In 50 years the number of samples preserved will multiply five times to 13 billion. The possibility of using extracted DNA from dead organisms as material for biotechnology is growing. The advanced countries, possessing more than 90 percent of the total number of standard samples of the living forms of life in earth, may come to monopolize the future uses, commercial or medical, of biodiversity.

These samples are essential not only in developing new materials and biotechnology, but also in evaluating environmental effects, detecting the changes of biological mass and restricting introduced species. The samples are mostly under care of the natural history museums. In United States there are about 1,100 such museums, but we have none.

Korea is the only OECD member country that does not have a natural history museum. From now, Korea must concentrate its efforts in building a foundation for biodiversity. The government must complete the mapping of biodiversity, in order to manage its ecosystem. Plans to make biodiversity maps were introduced in 1992, when the Convention on Biodiversity was signed. When the plan stalled due to the lack of classification information, the United Nations Environment Program initiated the Global Taxonomy Initiative as a prerequisite assignment.

Korea should grasp this international trend and push ahead with the plan to construct the natural history museum. Moreover, it should introduce laws for promoting biodiversity so that Korea's weak academic foundation on biotechnology will be enhanced.

The writer is a professor of biological science at Chonbuk National University.

by Lee Byung-hoon

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