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By Corinne Cluis

Picture a group of scientists exploring tropical forests to collect plants, fungi or microorganism samples. They are bioprospecting. In other words, they are looking for new compounds that may help remediate so-far incurable diseases. Picture them settling in villages and discussing with the shaman to learn their traditional way of using plants to heal their people. These local medicine men are often rich of a secular oral tradition about nature’s secrets. Now, picture the scientists coming back to their wealthy country with their suitcase full of unexplored drug candidates. Ten years later, after intense research work and numerous trial and errors, one of the plants used by the shaman is found to be a revolutionary cure for cancer. At first glance, this seems like blockbuster story! But is it, really? Alas, the reality is more complex, and the happy end is not always within reach for all the story’s characters.

Bioprospecting refers to the search of biological products with characteristics interesting for humankind. In the past, bioprospecting has focused on the quest for new chemical compounds with medicinal or anti-microbial properties, and has many times been successful. In 1958, for example, a research group was able to isolate two new therapeutic agents from a Madagascar plant called the rosy periwinkle The plant was found using cues from local shamans and spiritual herbalists [1]. If bioprospecting leads to a successful commercial product, it is likely that the company financing the initial “hunting” effort will want to protect their intellectual property rights on the product. But how are the country or the indigenous communities that traditionally use the beneficial natural resource going to be acknowledged or rewarded for their contribution? Moreover, how are they going to be affected by the sudden commercial value of the species producing the active compound? For instance, a curing plant that was a free commodity for the local communities of a tropical country may become a marketed one, now unaffordable for the people who discovered its virtues. Even worst, maybe the patent filed by the pharmaceutical company that developed the drug in its commercial form will prohibits the use or sell of the plant by indigenous groups.

These questions and issues are now getting even more complex, as advances in biochemistry and molecular biology make the own genetic material of living organisms very easy to extract and exploit for commercial purposes. In effect, with the recent sequencing and analysis of a growing number of plant and microbial genomes, biologists have gained a great knowledge about the genes allowing for the synthesis of interesting chemical compounds. These genes, which encode for enzymes capable of converting one molecule into another, are the best tools you can possibly dream of to push even farther the limits of chemical diversity that may be generated in a laboratory, and thus increase the production of new molecules to be tested as drug candidates. As a result, scientists believe that the future of bioprospecting lies in the search for genes rather than for chemical compounds [2]. Once an interesting gene has been found in a given species, bioengineers are able to isolate the DNA stretch corresponding to it and even to modify its sequence in order to alter the structure of the protein resulting from the translation gene. They can then insert the modified gene into another organism and control when and where it is going to be expressed. In this case, after such a number of modifications and transfers, should which organism originally contained the gene and the country it comes from still be acknowledged? At this point it seems difficult to bridge the gap between the people who discovered a product through trial and errors of the course of their culture history and a the biotech company which can, by highly technical and costly efforts, transform and improve that product to make it efficient and available to the greatest number of people [3].

When it comes to the expropriation of land for mining purposes, several indigenous communities were previously able to obtain a financial compensation. Therefore, it would be logical that, in a similar way, they get a share of the benefits resulting from the use or exploration of their genetic resources, especially if they provide cues to scientists as where to look. Unfortunately, the current patent laws clearly favors “western science” and innovative economies rather than traditional medicine and oral wisdom. As a result, many civil society groups and activists describe bioprospecting as a form of piracy. They argue that bioprospecting leads to a loss of power of indigenous people over their own resources, which is particularly threatening to their lifestyle since most of these people heavily depend on the local biodiversity for their survival [4]. Some countries are now developing strict measures in order to restrict access to their resources by foreign companies. For example, India has recently established a national gene bank and created a new body of legislation in order for all exportations of plant genetic resources to be highly regulated by the government. The new legislation forbids open access to the gene bank by all American agri-businesses, revoking an agreement previously made with the US government. These measures where taken in reaction to several cases of controversial exploitation of resources by first world parties. One of these cases involves a plant called neem, which has been used for millennia in India for its anti-microbial properties, but on which a corporation recently tried to put patent rights [5].

Unfortunately, many developing countries do not have the economical power or the political commitment necessary to put in place similar national protective measures. They also face great pressure by countries lending them money to open their frontiers to the latter’s companies. In addition, the World Trade Organization (WTO) recently brought about an international agreement on intellectual property rights that supports the idea that government control of resources is in itself an obstacle to economical growth and should therefore be avoided. Having individuals empowered to negotiate the price for the share of their biological resources is considered an obstacle to the creation of a free global market [3]. The treaty imposes no requirements for the bioprospecting parties obtain approval from local communities or their government before proceeding to natural resource hunting. In addition, the benefits obtained for the commercialization of a product obtained by bioprospecting do not have to be shared with indigenous communities. Despite these controversial aspects, all countries that are members of the WTO are under great pressure to sign this agreement because failure to do so can lead to trade sanctions.

At first glance, it really seems like the indigenous people’s claims on bioprospecting are hopeless, a typical David and Goliath battle. However, the story is not as dark as it sounds. Indeed, there are still considerable efforts made to integrate bioprospecting with the needs and rights of the developing countries. For example, The Convention on Biological Diversity, brought about in 1992 by the United Nations (UN), stipulates that bioprospecting shall not be done without the consent of the host country. According to that convention, the exploitation of local resources for drugs and medicine purposes shall be approved and actively involve local traditional communities, and the benefits made form such resources be shared in a fair and equitable way [6]. Another promising initiative is the International Cooperative Biodiversity Group (ICBG), a network of bioprospecting projects funded by the US government. The main goal of ICBG is to find plants bearing chemical compounds that could cure key diseases in the United States. However, countries that are hosting the searches can expect fair rewards and benefits. Typically the projects are set up so that the first extraction steps and analysis of candidate compounds are carried out in local laboratories, therefore creating new jobs and the development of a certain expertise. If a compound shows desired properties, further research and clinical trials are transferred to laboratories in the United States. If the compound leads to commercialized drug, 50% of the royalties are invested in a community development fund run by indigenous people and another 30% goes to research on tropical diseases.[7]

Finally, bioprospecting is also beginning to foster a renewal of awareness toward the conservation of biodiversity [1]. In fact, it is appears ironic that the countries where biodiversity is the richest and the most extensive are often some of the poorest in the world. Bioprospecting actors such as European and North American research institutes and pharmaceutical companies are of course interested in the preservation of such biodiversity, as they see it as bounties of potential new drugs. However, for developing countries, preserving biodiversity is luxury that they cannot afford, especially when these natural resources can provide a quick profit. The spread of initiatives such as the ICBG that propose a fair share of the benefits made out of bioprospecting activity is likely to influence governments of biodiversity-rich countries regarding the management of their natural resources. On these bases, bioprospecting has the potential to bring not only hope to human health but also to social justice and environment conservation. Now that is a great blockbuster story!


1. Onaga, L., Cashing in on nature's pharmacy: Bioprospecting and protection of biodiversity could go hand in hand. EMBO Rep, 2001. 2(4): p. 263-5.

2. Firn, R.D. and C.G. Jones, Avenues of discovery in bioprospecting. Nature, 1998. 393(6686): p. 617.

3. The complex realities of sharing genetic assets. Nature, 1998. 392(6676): p. 525.

4. ETC-Group, From global enclosure to self enclosure, in ETC group Communique. 2004. p. 1-14.

5. Jaymaran, K.S., India seeks tighter controls on germplast. Nature, 1998. 392: p. 536.

6. Masood, E., Social equity versus private property: striking the right balance. Nature, 1998. 392(6676): p. 537.

7. Masood, E., A formula for indigenous involvement. Nature, 1998. 392(6676): p. 539.

Corinne is a doing a M.Sc in plant molecular biology. She is interested in ways in which biotechnology can be used to increase quality of life, and in ethical ways to have these advances benefit populations. She is currently debating whether to become a pop icon or a meditating bum on the trails of BC parks.

Issue One

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