Tech: Hitting the DNA Jackpot

Bioprospectors are searching for treasure in the form of plants and animals—and they’re making sure everyone shares in their booty

By Sam Boykin

Illustration by Zohar Lazar

Nearly four years ago, J. Craig Venter, the maverick biologist who cracked our genetic code in 2000 on the heels of the government-funded Human Genome Project, launched a bold expedition. He and his crew sailed around the globe, collecting water samples every 200 miles and sending them to the J. Craig Venter Institute for genetic analysis. Since the voyage ended last year, researchers have been sifting through the six million new genes collected. The findings, which will eventually be made publicly available, may yield a better understanding of ecosystems, knowledge that will help prevent emerging diseases, and a cache of new alternative fuels.

Venter’s expedition is one of the most high-profile examples of bioprospecting—collecting biological samples to develop patented products or processes. It isn’t a new practice. Penicillin, widely used since the ’40s, is derived from a mold, and researchers have long scoured the globe looking for potentially useful plants, micro-organisms, and enzymes. Recently, though, pharmaceutical companies and academic labs have amped up their efforts to track down unknown species in undeveloped corners of the world. They hope to hit the jackpot by finding the keys to everything from curing diseases to creating new fuels. It’s no wonder they’re so gung-ho: Even a seemingly obscure find can yield big money. For instance, San Diego–based Diversa sent an underwater probe to explore deep-sea hydrothermal vents in the Pacific Ocean. The mission produced an enzyme, launched last year as Valley ‘Ultra-Thin,’ that improves the efficiency of ethanol production, and is estimated to garner revenues of $100 million a year. There’s no guarantee, of course, that bioprospecting will generate lucrative products. But as biotechnology advances, it’s likely that more goods derived from nature will hit the market, bringing in big earnings.

Private companies’ reluctance to share those profits drove developing nations to create the Convention on Biological Diversity at the 1992 Earth Summit. The Convention, which was signed by representatives of 150 governments—though not by the U.S.—mandates conservation of biological diversity and equitable sharing of the benefits derived from it. Biopirates, or companies that don’t follow the guidelines, run the risk of destroying biodiversity and undercutting social and economic development opportunities for poor nations, say human-rights and conservation advocates. According to Beth Burrows, director of the Edmonds Institute, an environmental nonprofit, “The time has come to think about honestly and equitably dealing with other people, and understanding that our goals and values aren’t the highest ones throughout the world.”

Companies, meanwhile, argue that bioprospecting is a win-win situation because it generates products that increase the value of biodiversity, thereby increasing incentives to conserve it. Heather Kowalski, a Venter Institute spokesperson, explains that studying the largely unknown microbes in the world’s oceans might prove useful in addressing environmental problems. For example, understanding how marine micro-organisms cycle carbon into and out of the atmosphere might lead to new products for environmental cleanup. And recognizing the value of these organisms could boost ocean conservation.

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Issue 25

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