Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Genomic Protectionism and Biopiracy

Well, it appears that the anti bio-piracy movement continues to spread into the genome sequencing realm. Today, an article was published in the Australian suggesting that Australia in essence stop working with the scientific community and to not let anyone else sequence the genomes of organisms from that country. The basic argument is as follows:
  • Australia possesses some organisms with unique genetic resources
  • Other countries have gotten more out of these resources than Australia has
  • Australia is now letting other countries read the entire genetic code of some of these organisms and (gasp) putting this information into the public domain
  • Australia loses out on some of the money and or intellectual property that could come from the sequence information
  • Therefore, Australia should stop participating in collaborative genome sequencing projects, at least for native Australian species
My gut instinct is that this idea is absurd. But the more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that something needs to be done to encourage countries to share genomic information about their biological resources. I see two critical reasons this is needed. First, it will help encourage countries to protect their biodiversity in the hope that they will get something from it. Second, the more this information is shared and put in the public domain the more we will learn about life on this planet.

This is of course not the first time this issue has come up. Diversa, for example, which has sampled the world looking for novel enzymes, has been accused of biopiracy wherever it goes (e.g., see here). They have argued that what they are doing is bioprospecting, not biopiracy. However this argument did not always calm critics in various locations.

Diversa has been accused of biopiracy in part because they are a for profit company trying to benefit directly from other countries biological resources, much like those looking for new drugs in the tropics. Since Diversa did their work through molecular biology, they were viewed in many countries much like GMOs are. Many other companies doing "bioprospecting" have also been accused of biopiracy and I guess the truth of the accusations depend on the company involved.

However, what we have now is potentially much more damaging to scientific research. These people are in essence arguing against ANY release of genomic information regarding organisms native to other countries because once the information is out, the countries lose control over how it might be used. See for example
  • Slashdot story about google being accused of biopiracy for discussing working with Venter on a map of genes across the globe (here)
  • Interview with Venter where he responds to charges of biopiracy
  • ETC discussions
  • IPCB comments
The critics in essence consider this analogous to someone stealing seeds for some plant. I think we run the risk of genome sequencing becoming labelled as horribly evil in much the same way GMOs and biopiracy is. I guess I do not completely disagree with the critics, but I see so many potential benefits to the world from sharing genomic information that I am hoping there is a way to do this without committing egregious acts of biopiracy.

One possible solution that has been suggested would be for DNA sequence databases to contain some reference to the country which "owns" the biological resources behind the sequence data. But this does not really protect any potential intellectual property in the data. Patenting DNA sequence has been frowned upon by courts and governments alike, as well as many policy folks. Thus this is probably not an option. As a supporter of open data release and open access to publications, I cannot believe I am about to write this but ... maybe it would be worth considering the DNA patenting issue again if it allowed for release of sequence information and protection from biopiracy.

It seems that there may be a need for DNA sequence databases to record in some way that certain information was produced from a country's biological resources.


  1. SOMEONE has to keep young punks from freeloading genome data off bittorrent. If Australia doesn't have rights to the platypus, it has no other claim to fames.

  2. they should not have to look very far for success stories re: open access either. when satellite data became 'declassified', one of the first regions which was able to benefit from this data transparency was Australia. Changes in sea surface temperatures associated with El Nino events and the subsequent biological effects, while partially understood from station data observations, were seen and understood in a way never comprehended before it was viewed from a satellite. Further, given what satellite data can help identify regarding currents and dispersion processes (albeit at a coarse scale) the idea of 'native species' might need to be reevaluated.

  3. It would be interestign to know if there are any examples where countries tried to prevent release of satellite images under some concept of "piracy"

  4. I am aware such an example in Brazil a few years back, but with a concerted effort involving a little education and open dialogue, the situation was turned from 'biopiracy' to 'indigenous bioprospecting'. I am sure that there are other exemples elsewhere that didn't turn out so well.