The Malay Archipelago is one of the world’s most concentrated areas of mega-biodiversity. Scientists estimate that the rainforests of Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines harbour thousands of species of flowering plants, palms, ferns, orchids, mosses, lichens and liverworts. So-called “bioprospectors” have discovered a wide variety of chemicals in the flora of these tropical forests. Because the compounds that might be created from these plants are staggering in terms of their scientific and medical applications, scientists are coming to Brunei Darussalam from around the world to tap the thus far unknown resources in its rainforests with the hope of discovering a beneficial chemical or compound that occurs naturally.

RESEARCH: With such important resources in its backyard, the Forestry Department is forging ahead with plans for a biotechnology industry to develop pharmaceuticals from the microbes found in the Sultanate’s rainforests. The first step is the planning of the Biological Resource Centre (BRC) to be hosted at the Tropical Biodiversity Centre (TBC). The TBC serves as a research and development facility for scientists and an educational park for students and tourists. The centre’s main purpose is to explore the economic development of Brunei Darussalam’s environmental resources and to act as the focal point for research into the economic benefits of locally sourced microbes.

In a speech at the October 2012 workshop entitled “Building Capacity in Microbial Culture Collection Management”, Mahmud Hj Yussof, the deputy director of forestry and chief executive of the Biodiversity Research and Innovation Centre at the Ministry of Industry and Primary Resources (MIPR), said, “We are here to learn more from the Centre for Agricultural Bioscience International [CABI] so we can learn how to identify and how to utilise microbes in the future. After that we will apply commercialisation of these microbes to support our economic growth.” The MIPR has appointed CABI, a non-profit organisation, as the body to survey the use and collection of microbial resources in the Sultanate.

COLLABORATIONS AT WORK: The TBC will also house Brunei Darussalam’s research colleagues, such as the Japan-based National Institute of Technology and Evaluation (NITE). Together, NITE and Bruneian scientists are researching the possibilities of using microbes found in Brunei Darussalam for pharmaceutical purposes.

Another country looking to partner with Brunei Darussalam in this field is Germany, which is eyeing cooperation in several new sectors, including pharmaceuticals culled from the Sultanate’s biologically diverse plant life. Speaking to media following a meeting with the MIPR in April 2012, Dr Robert Gaertner, the president of the German Healthcare Partnership said that a delegation of German business leaders that he heads had discussed with the MIPR exploring cooperation in new sectors in the Sultanate, with a focus on pharmaceuticals and innovative ways to tap into the tropical rainforests. “There are a lot of opportunities in the research and development sector… and I think that it is important to build links and connections with research units and universities that are currently heavily investing into research in Germany,” Gaertner said.

Meanwhile, Professor Benito C Tan from the National University of Singapore, an expert on bryology – the study of mosses and liverworts – told local media during the ASEAN-Korea Biodiversity Cooperation Seminar in October 2012 that it was particularly important to catalogue local moss species because they could prove invaluable to the pharmaceutical industry.

LOCAL EXPERTISE: While cooperation with third parties will be important for developing a domestic pharmaceutical industry based on plants and microbes, the hope is that eventually the country will have homegrown talent to call on. Dr Rahayu Sukmaria Hj Sukri, from the University of Brunei Darussalam’s (UBD’s) Faculty of Science, told reporters on the sides of the ASEAN-Korea Biodiversity Cooperation Seminar that she hoped the seminar would boost students’ interest in ecology. “We need more people to… gather the scientific data that is needed to inform policy makers,” she told the press.