In 2001, Lucigen, a Wisconsin-based molecular biology company, began ladling thermophilic microorganisms out of Yellowstone National Park's famed geothermal pools to identify and isolate new enzymes.
These enzymes, explains Lucigen CEO and founder David Mead, "make DNA diagnostics better, faster and cheaper, or breakdown biomass into sugar so you can convert it into fuel better, faster and cheaper."
Over the last nine years, Lucigen has commercialized products derived from microorganisms that thrive in Yellowstone's thermal features, including PyroPhage 3173 DNA Polymerase (patent pending). But the park, though it's provided the biological material key to Lucigen's and dozens of other researchers' innovations, hasn't been paid a penny.
That will soon change. Two weeks ago, the National Park Service released its record of decision—more than a decade in the making—on "benefits-sharing," a controversial policy allowing national parks to profit from commercial products or services derived from research originally conducted within their boundaries.
"What this decision allows us to do," says Tom Olliff, director of the Greater Yellowstone Network's Inventory & Monitoring Program, "is to sign benefits-sharing agreements with people who are bioprospectors. Bioprospecting has been legal [since the National Parks Omnibus Management Act of 1998]. The only thing that wasn't legal for us to do was actually sign benefits-sharing agreements."
While researchers applaud the April 6 decision, critics say it amounts to a commercialization of national park resources and contravenes the mission of the National Park Service.
"It's sort of the park believing that there is a corporate pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," says Jeff Ruch, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Ruch takes issue with the new policy, pointing to a stipulation that keeps secret the royalty rates paid to parks. He also says that because profits from commercial activity would go to individual parks (unlike other park-generated revenues), it creates a financial incentive for park officials to seek out corporate partners.
"That's one of the things that is so pernicious about this," Ruch says.
More than that, Ruch calls it "mystifying" that the park service would decide to classify each of its 270 units as "federal laboratories," which under the Federal Technology Transfer Act of 1986 allows them to negotiate Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs).
"The park service has chosen something that is really cumbersome and requires them to decide that each park is a laboratory," Ruch says, "and it isn't. It's a park."
The issue of benefits-sharing first rose to the surface in 1966. Microbiologist Thomas Brock scooped a bacterium, later dubbed Thermus aquaticus, from a geo-thermal pool in Yellowstone and was able to isolate the organism's unique ability to produce the heat-resistant enzyme TAQ polymerase. Nearly two decades later, after some genetic manipulation, the microorganism was patented. It earned the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Hoffman LaRouche millions of dollars. Yellowstone National Park never saw a dime.
Then, in the mid-1990s, the park tried to profit. It entered into a CRADA with the San Diego-based company Diversa (since acquired by a company called Verenium), marking the park service's first profit-sharing agreement with a private commercial interest. That led to a lawsuit filed by environmental groups in 1998. The judge would ultimately rule—10 years ago this month—in favor of the park service, except on one point: He called the profit-sharing a "major federal action," forcing the park to conduct an Environmental Assessment, then an Environmental Impact Statement. That document wasn't completed until October 2009.
All the while, Yellowstone officials fought the contention that the park was selling out.
"I think people see it as a selling of park resources, rather than a scientific collection," says Olliff. "And I think the name 'bioprospecting' kind of conjures up images of your grandpa up there with mules and picks and shovels. Nothing could be further from the real thing going on out there."
Today, according to Olliff, Yellowstone has six or seven permitted bioprospectors. The only commercial company is Lucigen. The rest are federal and university researchers.
"We are just now gearing up to begin negotiations with CRADAs for some of these folks," he says.
Count Montana State University (MSU) in Bozeman among the potential profit partners. Technology Transfer Office Director Becky Mahurin says researchers at the school's Thermal Biology Institute currently collect and study Yellowstone microbes to create products with industrial applications. The institute has already patented and licensed an organism that when used as a seed coating conveys a certain level of drought tolerance.
"We don't collect large samples," Mahurin says. "We're talking about a test tube amount of a sample taken from a hot pool. So were certainly not in any way, we believe, affecting the dynamics of Yellowstone, or even of that hot pool."
Lucigen's Mead says his company has a similarly minimal impact.
"We're just taking stuff that normally falls in the river and goes out to the sea—no harm, no foul," Mead says. "And there are a bunch of folks out there who think parks should be pristine and nobody should ever take anything from them. If that's the case, they shouldn't let any of [Yellowstone's] millions of visitors in because they trample the crap out of it every year."
With the benefits-sharing policy finally finalized, opponents now can only hope new park profits might help mitigate that trampling.