[Ip-health] FT: Biological bounty is the ocean’s richest treasure

Thiru Balasubramaniam thiru at keionline.org
Thu Sep 13 01:39:45 PDT 2018


Biological bounty is the ocean’s richest treasure

Anjana Ahuja

The high seas are stocked with untold riches. Not gold or rubies hidden on
shipwrecks but a more contemporary kind of treasure: the DNA of millions of
marine creatures. The harvesting of this biological bounty is already under
way. Around 13,000 genetic sequences from more than 800 marine species have
been patented — with just under half of all patents belonging to the German
chemicals company BASF. These striking statistics will feature in UN
discussions that have begun in New York on a contentious issue: who should
own and profit from the ocean’s immense biodiversity?

The question is as broad as the ocean is deep, with cutting-edge science,
commerce, and international treaties and conventions overlapping with
discomforting complexity. Nations are protected from biopiracy — the
plunder of native plant and animal DNA — under the Convention on Biological
Diversity and the 2010 Nagoya protocol. But this protection, afforded
around national shores, lapses in international waters, which begin 200
nautical miles out.

Here, governance becomes hazy. The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the
Sea, which predates the genetic revolution, contends that the resources
found on or below the seabed, such as minerals, are the “common heritage of
mankind”. The uncertainty of how this principle applies to marine genetics
— combined with an enshrined freedom to roam the high seas — is turning the
oceans into a genetic Klondike.

Marjo Vierros, a senior fellow in global marine governance at the United
Nations University, the UN’s academic arm, has charted commercial interest
(patents) in almost every kind of marine organism: marine sponges, corals,
worms, molluscs, algae, fish (including sharks), and micro-organisms
(archaea and bacteria). Many genetic sequences are destined for use in the
chemical industry, but some show promise as new medicines or even as
ingredients in cosmetics.

The majority of existing patents cover marine species found in protected
national waters, but the most valuable may lurk in far-off depths. The
bottom of the ocean is home to extremophiles, organisms that have adapted
to chilly temperatures, crushing pressures and, near hydrothermal vents,
the acidic environment. Identifying the genes that allow vent-dwelling
organisms to thrive — and then splicing those into, say, crops that could
be grown in acidic soils — has obvious commercial potential. The global
market for marine biotechnology is expected to reach $6.4bn by 2025.

BASF did not need to mount expensive fishing expeditions for its patent
trove: it netted most of them simply by scouring public genetic databases
and then, entirely legally, applying for patents. Robert Blasiak, an ocean
management researcher at Stockholm University, documented the marine
gene-grab in a recent paper in Science Advances.

As well as discovering the dominance of BASF, the analysis of nearly 13,000
marine gene patents showed that 165 countries owned none, raising
legitimate questions of social justice. He has written about the “urgency
of clarifying the legal regime around access and sharing of marine genetic
resources”. One idea is for patent-holders to pay into an international
global fund, from which poorer countries could benefit.

The patenting of sea life recalls the legal battle over the ownership of
human genes. It began in the mid-1990s when Myriad Genetics filed patents
for two genes associated with breast cancer. The company developed a
proprietary $4,000 diagnostic test and sued rivals touting cheaper ones.
This lasted until 2013, when the US Supreme Court finally ruled the Myriad
patents invalid because DNA is a product of nature.

Now we must collectively venture on to the high seas to ask to whom the
sponges, corals, fish, molluscs, worms, and even the bacteria, rightly

Thiru Balasubramaniam
Geneva Representative
Knowledge Ecology International
41 22 791 6727
thiru at keionline.org

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