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

Though U.S. companies aren’t beholden to the Convention, some follow the guidelines anyway. In 2004 Diversa launched Cottonase, an eco-friendly enzyme that reduces the need for harsh chemicals used to make cotton textiles. The enzyme, found in Costa Rica, was developed with that country’s National Biodiversity Institute, which Diversa pays nearly $70,000 per year to support collection and training, says Dan Robertson, a Diversa vice president. Similarly, the Missouri Botanical Garden gives African countries it works with more than financial contributions: It also provides training programs, scientific equipment, and technology transfer to bolster research. The Garden is one of several institutions that make up the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG), which promotes conservation and economic growth. The collaborations have produced several promising biological compounds, some with antimalarial properties, and also helped establish a framework for countries to benefit from discoveries made within their borders. Many developing nations “don’t have a strong scientific research organization that can advise decision makers about how to treat their natural resources,” says James Miller, a former curator at the Garden. “The ICBG programs are very much about addressing that infrastructure.”

Despite efforts to protect poorer nations’ rights, some believe nature shouldn’t be patented. “Once a resource is privatized through the patent system, a community that once had access to the resource may lose the legal right to use it, may no longer be able to afford to buy it, or may lose the power to decide how it’s used,” says Hope Shand of ETC Group, a sustainability nonprofit.

Africa’s Bushmen have experienced what happens when companies aren’t compelled to follow the guidelines. In 1997, pharmaceutical giant Phytopharm bought the rights to the appetite-suppressing ingredient found in Hoodia, a plant generations of Bushmen have consumed to stave off hunger during treks through the Kalahari Desert. In 2004, the company developed Hoodia-based weight-loss shakes and diet bars—without any agreement with the Bushmen. In response, the South African Savings Institute, an economic development group, recently negotiated a deal whereby the Bushmen will receive six percent of all royalties.

As for Venter, who was accused of biopiracy during his company’s voyage around the world, he pooh-poohs the notion. “Where we needed to get permits, we did,” says Kowalski. Venter has said repeatedly that his findings will be made available on GenBank, the National Institutes of Health’s public databank of genomic data, and that his institute is not seeking intellectual property rights on the data. Though he compares his voyage to that of the HMS Beagle, whether it will lead to discoveries as momentous as Darwin’s will depend on mysteries deep within the ocean—and whether Venter and his team have what it takes to solve them.  

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Issue 25

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