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Benefits-Sharing in the National Parks
Environmental Impact Statement

Bioprospecting: History and Background

For millennia, people around the world have studied nature as part of humanity's never-ending search for new ways to improve crops for food production, to combat disease and other maladies, as well as to make other discoveries that might enhance the overall quality of life on Earth. For example, more than half of the top brand-name pharmaceuticals in use in the United States in the early 1990s contained at least one major active compound derived from  or patterned after compounds first discovered in nature.In parts of the world where traditional healing practices remain prevalent, direct reliance on useful discoveries from nature is even more pronounced.

Recent advances in biotechnology and related sciences have generated increased activity and interest in the search for useful biochemical compounds or other potentially valuable biological discoveries in nature -- a very old practice that is now sometimes described by a new term: "biodiversity prospecting" or "bioprospecting."  In contrast to timber harvesting, mining, and other traditionally consumptive uses of natural resources, research-focused bioprospecting generates value from the results of scientific study involving biological samples.  This value-added approach has been enhanced also by developments in intellectual property rights laws, new approaches in specimen collection and drug and other product-development research, and evolving trade practices.

Reflecting the convergence of all these developments, significant value is now attaching to research results involving biological resources found in many special habitats - ranging from tropical rainforests to coral reefs to frozen tundra to national parks and other protected and unprotected areas.  In some places, there is an added sense of urgency as habitats and the biodiversity alive within them are threatened or lost before potentially valuable discoveries from research activities can occur.  For example, while more than half of all drugs in use have an origin in nature-based research, it also is now recognized that many of the biological species upon which such discoveries depend are at current risk of loss through habitat destruction and other causes.

The collection of biological specimens for scientific research purposes is not new in U.S. national parks. The first research permit in the national parks, issued in 1898, authorized the collection of microbial specimens from hot springs at Yellowstone National Park.  The current NPS regulations that apply to the collection of biological specimens for scientific research purposes have been in force since 1983 (36 CFR § 2.5).

The best-known example of valuable research results from "bioprospecting" in U.S. national parks was the discovery and isolation in the late 1980s of an enzyme named "Taq polymerase." This development resulted from research involving a sample of a tiny microbe called Thermus aquaticus that was first collected from a hot spring at Yellowstone National Park. The importance of the research involving T. aquaticus and Taq polymerase was summarized in 1991 in Congressional testimony offered by D. Allan Bromley (then Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Science Advisor to President George Bush):

Different kinds of research and development tend to have different kinds of returns. With basic research -- the majority of which is done by individual scientists and small groups of scientists at universities -- it is very difficult to predict when, where, and to whom the returns will eventually accrue. Yet even work that can seem highly abstract can have surprisingly immediate impacts.  To take just one example, in 1968 Thomas Brock, a microbiologist at the University of Wisconsin, discovered a form of bacteria in the thermal vents of Yellowstone that can survive at very high temperature. From these bacteria an enzyme was extracted that is stable at near-boiling temperatures.  Nearly two decades later this enzyme proved to be vital in the process known as the polymerase chain reaction, which is used to duplicate specific pieces of DNA. Today, PCR is the basis of a multimillion dollar business with applications ranging from the rapid diagnosis of disease to forensic medicine.2

Historically, the owners or custodians of biological resources that have been used in many valuable research projects have not been compensated or otherwise positioned to share in the benefits derived from researchers' uses of biological samples.  This issue first arose in connection with the use of biological samples obtained by multinational research firms from biologically rich countries in the tropics.  The same issue has now arisen in the United States in connection with biological samples taken from units of the National Park System pursuant to well-established research specimen collection permits.

The National Parks Omnibus Management Act of 1998 mandates increased scientific research activities in the national parks and use of the results of scientific study in park management decisions.  The new law encourages the use of units of the National Park System for scientific study by public as well as private sector scientific researchers, and mandates development of long-term inventory and monitoring activities that provide baseline information and document trends relating to the condition of resources protected by the national parks.  In addition, the new law authorizes "negotiations with the research community and private industry for equitable, efficient benefits-sharing arrangements" in connection with research activities conducted in units of the National Park System.

1 See, e.g., Grifo, F. & Rosenthal, J., eds., Biodiversity and Human Health (Washington, DC: Island Press 1997), at 135-142.
2
It should be noted that Dr. Brock was affiliated with Indiana University (not Wisconsin) when T. aquaticus was first discovered in 1966 (not 1968).

update on 11/23/2009  I   http://www.nature.nps.gov/benefitssharing/bphistory.cfm   I  Email: Contact Us
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