Nearly four years ago, J. Craig Venter, the maverick biologist who cracked our genetic code in 2000 on the heels of the government-funded Human Genome Project, launched a bold expedition. He and his crew sailed around the globe, collecting water samples every 200 miles and sending them to the J. Craig Venter Institute for genetic analysis. Since the voyage ended last year, researchers have been sifting through the six million new genes collected. The findings, which will eventually be made publicly available, may yield a better understanding of ecosystems, knowledge that will help prevent emerging diseases, and a cache of new alternative fuels.

Venter’s expedition is one of the most high-profile examples of bioprospecting — collecting biological samples to develop patented products or processes. It isn’t a new practice. Penicillin, widely used since the ’40s, is derived from a mold, and researchers have long scoured the globe looking for potentially useful plants, micro-organisms, and enzymes. Recently, though, pharmaceutical companies and academic labs have amped up their efforts to track down unknown species in undeveloped corners of the world. They hope to hit the jackpot by finding the keys to everything from curing diseases to creating new fuels. It’s no wonder they’re so gung-ho: Even a seemingly obscure find can yield big money. For instance, San Diego–based Diversa sent an underwater probe to explore deep-sea hydrothermal vents in the Pacific Ocean. The mission produced an enzyme, launched last year as Valley ‘Ultra-Thin,’ that improves the efficiency of ethanol production, and is estimated to garner revenues of $100 million a year. There’s no guarantee, of course, that bioprospecting will generate lucrative products. But as biotechnology advances, it’s likely that more goods derived from nature will hit the market, bringing in big earnings.

Private companies’ reluctance to share those profits drove developing nations to create the Convention on Biological Diversity at the 1992 Earth Summit. The Convention, which was signed by representatives of 150 governments — though not by the U.S. — mandates conservation of biological diversity and equitable sharing of the benefits derived from it. Biopirates, or companies that don’t follow the guidelines, run the risk of destroying biodiversity and undercutting social and economic development opportunities for poor nations, say human-rights and conservation advocates. According to Beth Burrows, director of the Edmonds Institute, an environmental nonprofit, “The time has come to think about honestly and equitably dealing with other people, and understanding that our goals and values aren’t the highest ones throughout the world.”

Companies, meanwhile, argue that bioprospecting is a win-win situation because it generates products that increase the value of biodiversity, thereby increasing incentives to conserve it. Heather Kowalski, a Venter Institute spokesperson, explains that studying the largely unknown microbes in the world’s oceans might prove useful in addressing environmental problems. For example, understanding how marine micro-organisms cycle carbon into and out of the atmosphere might lead to new products for environmental cleanup. And recognizing the value of these organisms could boost ocean conservation.

Though U.S. companies aren’t beholden to the Convention, some follow the guidelines anyway. In 2004 Diversa launched Cottonase, an eco-friendly enzyme that reduces the need for harsh chemicals used to make cotton textiles. The enzyme, found in Costa Rica, was developed with that country’s National Biodiversity Institute, which Diversa pays nearly $70,000 per year to support collection and training, says Dan Robertson, a Diversa vice president. Similarly, the Missouri Botanical Garden gives African countries it works with more than financial contributions: It also provides training programs, scientific equipment, and technology transfer to bolster research. The Garden is one of several institutions that make up the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG), which promotes conservation and economic growth. The collaborations have produced several promising biological compounds, some with antimalarial properties, and also helped establish a framework for countries to benefit from discoveries made within their borders. Many developing nations “don’t have a strong scientific research organization that can advise decision makers about how to treat their natural resources,” says James Miller, a former curator at the Garden. “The ICBG programs are very much about addressing that infrastructure.”

Despite efforts to protect poorer nations’ rights, some believe nature shouldn’t be patented. “Once a resource is privatized through the patent system, a community that once had access to the resource may lose the legal right to use it, may no longer be able to afford to buy it, or may lose the power to decide how it’s used,” says Hope Shand of ETC Group, a sustainability nonprofit.

Africa’s Bushmen have experienced what happens when companies aren’t compelled to follow the guidelines. In 1997, pharmaceutical giant Phytopharm bought the rights to the appetite-suppressing ingredient found in Hoodia, a plant generations of Bushmen have consumed to stave off hunger during treks through the Kalahari Desert. In 2004, the company developed Hoodia-based weight-loss shakes and diet bars — without any agreement with the Bushmen. In response, the South African Savings Institute, an economic development group, recently negotiated a deal whereby the Bushmen will receive six percent of all royalties.

As for Venter, who was accused of biopiracy during his company’s voyage around the world, he pooh-poohs the notion. “Where we needed to get permits, we did,” says Kowalski. Venter has said repeatedly that his findings will be made available on GenBank, the National Institutes of Health’s public databank of genomic data, and that his institute is not seeking intellectual property rights on the data. Though he compares his voyage to that of the HMS Beagle, whether it will lead to discoveries as momentous as Darwin’s will depend on mysteries deep within the ocean — and whether Venter and his team have what it takes to solve them.  

Story by Sam Boykin. This article originally appeared in Plenty in April 2007. The story was added to in June 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2007.