Mining microbes 

Should NPS commercialize the commons?

In 1966 a University of Wisconsin bacteriologist named Thomas Brock was probing Yellowstone National Park’s hot springs for clues to the life cycle of microbes. Along the way he discovered Thermus aquaticus, one of a group of organisms that thrives in extremely high temperatures. Brock collected a sample of T. aquaticus, grew it in a laboratory and deposited a living sample in the American Type Culture Collection, a sort of library for microbes. Nearly 20 years later a biotechnology firm trying to develop a new way to duplicate genetic material found an important use for T. aquaticus. It turned out that Brock’s heat-loving microbe produced an enzyme that revolutionized the replication of DNA for use in genetic fingerprinting. Swiss pharmaceutical giant Hoffman-LaRoche has since made hundreds of millions of dollars from its application of Brock’s initial discovery, but the American public hasn’t seen a dime.

Now the National Park Service (NPS) wants to cash in on future scientific discoveries made in the parks.

Last month the agency released a 340-page draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) exploring options for a new policy that would allow national parks to share the benefits of commercial “bioprospecting.” According to the DEIS, the agency wants to allow park managers to negotiate contracts with private companies that make biological discoveries in the parks that lead to commercial applications. According to the proposal, research firms would have to sign an agreement promising to return some benefits—such as scientific training, new equipment or royalties—before such discoveries are used for commercial purposes.

The DEIS drew immediate criticism from environmental groups opposing the “commercialization of the commons,” including groups that won a legal case in 1999 forcing NPS to prepare the DEIS in the first place.

“I think that the very basic mission and the actual idea of the park system is under threat,” says Mike Bader, a Missoula environmental consultant and former Yellowstone National Park seasonal ranger. “The whole idea of the park system is that we would protect these areas from the exploitation of resources. This [DEIS] opens the door to commercial exploitation.”

The controversy began in 1997 when the park service negotiated a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with the San Diego-based Diversa Corporation. Diversa has been bioprospecting in Yellowstone for years in hopes of marketing Pyrolase 200, a commercially valuable oil-extraction enzyme derived from a microbe found in one of the park’s thermal pools. But in 1998 environmentalists cried foul, saying it’s illegal to remove organisms from the national parks for commercial purposes, and sued to stop the practice. In 2000 a federal judge ordered the park service to complete an Environmental Impact Statement on bioprospecting. Research continues in the meantime, but commercial application of park finds are on hold pending the agencies final decision, expected this winter.

Bader, who was involved in the 1998 lawsuit, says his chief concern is that park managers may be tempted to set aside protections in pursuit of commercial benefits, especially in an era when national parks are increasingly underfunded by Congress. That’s a concern shared by Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, one of the parties to the 1998 suit.

“Right now the goal of the parks is to protect the parks,” Garrity says. “If the goal becomes [that] the parks should be managed for private commercial profit, the main goal could be set aside. The park then would be managed for private corporate gain rather than managed for the future enjoyment of the public.”

But NPS officials insist that the agency’s mission—which is to preserve park resources “by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations”—will remain intact.

Tom Olliff, Yellowstone National Park’s resource center chief, says he’s aware of environmentalist concerns, but doesn’t share them.

“Bioprospecting is a tough term because it conjures up images of a pick and shovel, but we’re really talking about the scientific collection of small amounts of material,” Olliff says. “This is not the commercialization of park resources, it’s the commercialization of scientific discoveries.”

National parks attract researchers because they offer opportunities to observe preserved and protected natural resources, such as Yellowstone’s thermal pools.

According to the DEIS, between 1978 and 2003 the United States Patent Office issued at least 45 patents involving research directly related to the study of biological material originating in national parks. All but two of those patents related to inventions involving specimens first collected in Yellowstone. Park officials estimate that if benefits-sharing is implemented, in 20 years the program could net Yellowstone between $634,000 and $2.8 million in annual benefits, plus the potential for royalities.

The agency’s preferred alternative, Alternative B, calls for the implementation of benefits-sharing agreements with the condition that public disclosure of terms and conditions of future contracts be optional.

None of the organizations speaking out against the agency’s preferred alternative are advocating an end to research in the parks, but they argue that secret contracts between NPS and private corporations go against the grain of the agency’s mission. However, Olliff says the only way parks would be able to negotiate the best possible deals is if the terms are kept under seal. That kind of secrecy troubles the plan’s opposition.

“The provision in there that says their actions don’t have to be made open to the public is what we’re concerned about,” Garrity says. “We want them to do research, but we want that research to be shared with everybody, not put under lock and key so [private corporations] can patent it and get rich off of it.”

The National Park Service will take comments on the Benefits Sharing DEIS until Dec. 15. The full document and a link for commenting online can be found on the agency’s website at Comments can also be sent by mail to: NPS Benefits-Sharing EIS, P.O. Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, WY, 82190.

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