Bioprospecting national parks

Financial geyser?: Yellowstone deal with biotech firm promises public benefit for microbe research.

May 21, 2000

A TEASPOON of hot water may not seem valuable, but taken from the geysers of Yellowstone National Park the sulfurous broth may yield new generations of wonder drugs or industrial chemicals.

Or perhaps the key to DNA fingerprinting, as did an enzyme isolated from the park's hot springs bacteria three decades ago that was patented and yields $100 million a year to a private chemical firm. Or similar extracted microbes that are used in stain removers and detergents.

These treasures of bioprospecting, extracting commercially useful chemical compounds from unique microorganisms found in nature, are at the heart of a bubbling legal controversy. A federal court last month upheld an agreement that allows a biotechnology company to sample the national park's geysers and muck for potentially useful microorganisms in exchange for payments and royalties to the park.

Critics argue that this is selling a public resources and a violation of the conservation mandate. They fear the parks becoming discount supermarkets for valuable genetic material.

Yet hundreds of research permits are issued by Yellowstone each year, with no promise to share any benefits. This contact with Diversa Corp. sets a new precedent for the parks to be paid for products derived from their resources.

There's no evident harm to the public resources; it's not like mining or logging. Presumably the research will have social benefits. And more bioprospecting would expand the cataloguing of the park's still undiscovered biological diversity.

Troubling in this pioneer agreement has been the secrecy of the details (revealed only by court action) and the fact that payments only go to Yellowstone, not the national park system. These are matters to be rectified in subsequent profit-sharing agreements.

Bioprospecting in nature's laboratory can prove beneficial to science and to conservation as long as it is kept in balance with other goals of the national park system.

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