GENET archive


4-Patents: Preventing biopiracy in Bermuda's waters - and inEthopia's forests

                                 PART I
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TITLE:  Preventing biological piracy in Bermuda's waters
SOURCE: The Royal Gazette, Bermudas, by Tania Theriault
DATE:   9 Jul 2004

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Preventing biological piracy in Bermuda's waters

Government is cracking down on scientific research done under the banner
of the biostation after two recent projects swept away genetic material
from local waters without benefiting the Island at all. One project run
by a company called Diversa collected a protein from Bermuda coral which
it is now marketing as a biotechnology tool. The other which has drawn
Government's ire is a high-profile project of Dr. Craig Venter - a world
famous scientist whose past work sped the Human Genome Project to a rapid
conclusion. Dr. Venter collected organisms from the Sargasso Sea in his
search for an organism which could convert carbon dioxide into a clean
fuel source. The massive project received a $9 million grant from the US
department of energy, and has already collected and genetically decoded
1,800 new species - finding 1.2 million previously unknown genes. But the
Bermuda Government, like many around the world, is now waking up to the
possibility that genetic material can be taken and used for commercial
gain without passing on a penny to the Island. Both research projects
worked in affiliation with the Bermuda Biological Station for Research
(BBSR) using a decades-old biological specimen collection permit the
biostation holds as permission to carry out their work. As such
Government was only minimally aware of what was taking place in its
waters. But that is set to change, Director of Conservation Services Jack
Ward told The Royal Gazette.

Government will be revoking the biostation's all encompassing permit and
will begin negotiating deals with research teams directly to ensure
Bermuda gets a legitimate share of any financial gains earned from its
genetic resources. "We want to be involved through the entire process,"
Mr. Ward said. The move was reported in the science magazine Nature last
month, which said that Government was revoking the biostation's permit
and would replace it with a stricter one this month, but Mr. Ward called
that report "highly erroneous". Mr. Ward and biostation chief Dr. Tony
Knap have since written a letter to the magazine clarifying their
position. Mr. Ward said the biostation's permit remains in place and the
Government has no issue with any legitimate collection for scientific
purposes. But the permit will be tightened up to ensure that any research
with potential commercial spin-offs from Bermuda's genetic material makes
some provisions for the Island. "They will have a collection permit but
it will specifically exclude things of a specific nature dealing with
genetic resources," he said. Bermuda is signing on to the Convention on
Biological Diversity and will be working with an overseas expert to
develop a policy to protect its biological wealth. "The reason for the
convention being signed in the first place was to ensure compensation
where appropriate to countries for any product developed from their
genetic resources," Mr. Ward said. While Bermuda was set to reap no
benefit from the Diversa product - although the biostation had ensured it
got a one percent royalty - Mr. Ward said the company has since set up a
fund to benefit Bermuda students. In the collection of the protein, the
company would have destroyed the coral it was harvested from, despite the
fact coral is a protected species, he added. But the Venter project was
more controversial and complicated. He was collecting specimens in the
Sargasso Sea, which technically falls under Bermuda's jurisdiction under
the International Law of the Sea. Countries have exclusive economic zone
rights to everything with 200 nautical miles of their shores. But the
provision is almost impossible to enforce and Bermuda certainly has no
capacity to Police its waters. Making a claim on resources Dr. Venter
collected would be further complicated as the material was simply passing
in free moving ocean, Mr. Ward said. Where it originated and where it
ends up are impossible to prove. Additionally, Dr. Venter - who became
unfathomably wealthy through his human genome work - claims his project
is not for profit. Although, if successful in his ultimate goal of
finding a clean fuel source, the economic potential is limitless.
Additionally, the organisms Dr. Venter's team collects are genetically
decoded and then all the information is put into the public domain.

In theory anyone could draw on that data, gleaned from local organisms,
to create any number of profit-generating products. "Bermuda has no
further control over it all," Mr. Ward said. But to crackdown on Dr.
Venter, Government would face an impossible task. "He basically came in
and was opportunistic," Mr. Ward said. "He took the samples and ran his
processes." Dr. Venter is conducting similar projects around the world
but Mr. Ward said the work would not happen the same way in Bermuda
again. Building a policy to protect the Island is thorny, however. "There
is no model which we could follow," said Mr. Ward. "Every country is
struggling with this at the moment because things are changing so fast."
Mr. Ward said Government would look to establish a financial provision
that would benefit Bermuda but not deter scientific research. Government
could ask for anything from 1.5 percent to 15 percent - "which is what
the Australians are trying to ask for" - of potential profits gleaned
from its biological wealth. But he does not fault either Diversa or Dr.
Venter for the work they did. "We should have been more proactive," he said.

Until a new policy is fleshed out, however, procedures remain in a "grey
area". "Right now, because the permit is in place, there would be nothing
to say anything they would do would be illegal," Mr. Ward said of future
research projects which might take place. "I would think that Dr. Knap
would be sensitive and say 'let's talk' though."

Linked articles:
Free lecture on Sargasso Sea at Bio Station on Friday 04/21/2004
Species of sea microbes discovered off Bermuda 03/07/2004
Venter gets funds for gene mapping plan 04/29/2003
Venter-ing into unknown waters 12/09/2002
Gee-wiz genomic revolution in gear at the Bio-Station 05/22/2002
Top scientist looks to Bermuda 05/10/2002
Genetic mapmaker to visit 05/01/2002

                                  PART II
-------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Scientist Calls Decaf Coffee Row Tempest in Teacup
SOURCE: Reuters, by Reese Ewing 
DATE:   14 Jul 2004 

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Scientist Calls Decaf Coffee Row Tempest in Teacup

SAO PAULO, Brazil - The Brazilian scientist who recently discovered
naturally decaffeinated coffee plants from a collection of wild Ethiopian
beans said yesterday reports that he had taken coffee plants illegally
from the African country were "nonsense."

The spat has underscored the potential money at stake over the rights to
genetic material of the coffee plants, even though the commercial
potential of the wild plants is unknown and a product could take at least
five years to get to market.

Decaf drinkers account for 10 percent of total coffee sales in the world,
a multibillion-dollar industry. Naturally decaffeinated brews could
dominate over the current chemically caffeine-reduced options in today's
health-conscious market.

"This has been absurdly blown out of proportion," Paulo Mazzafera, a PhD
in plant physiology at Brazil's UNICAMP university, told Reuters in an
interview. "I've never even been to Ethiopia ... I'm hoping to visit
there some day."

On June 29, Hailue Gebre Hiwot, President of the Ethiopian Coffee
Exporters Association (ECEA), demanded that Mazzafera explain how he was
able to take thousands of coffee specimens which he collected from
Ethiopian forests in the 1980s.

He told Reuters the plants were Ethiopian and the Brazilian scientist
"could face charges for illegally taking Ethiopian property."

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has also told Reuters his
government is looking into the issue seriously.

"If people had actually bothered to read my research they would know that
Ethiopian officials and experts were part of the international UN mission
that collected the wild varieties of coffee in 1964," Mazzafera said.

Commercial coffee grown throughout the world today originated in the high
forests of southwestern Ethiopia in a region known as Kaffa, which is the
eponym of the modern drink in many languages.

Mazzafera said the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United
Nations organized and financed a team of researchers from various
countries to go to Ethiopia in 1964-65 with the approval and cooperation
of Ethiopia's King Haile Selassie I.

"The area was undergoing heavy deforestation and there was concern over
the survival of these native plants," said Mazzafera. "The best genetic
collection of a species is always in the place where it originates."

The mission managed to collect a few hundred arabica beans from wild
coffee plants in the region. "I doubt these plants exist any longer in
the wild."

"Copies of this collection were made - one went to Ethiopia, one to
India, also to Portugal and Costa Rica," explained Mazzafera. "It was
from Costa Rica's collection that Brazil eventually got its seeds in 1973."

Brazil planted the beans soon after and a few thousand trees have been
maintained. Mazzafera said his discovery of three trees that contained
virtually no caffeine was based on the Ethiopian beans acquired from
Costa Rica.

The ownership of the collection's genetic material is unclear. By
generally accepted standards, it is not possible to copyright a living
organism unless it has been genetically modified, like Monsanto Co.'s
Roundup Ready Soybeans.

"If these beans turn out to be commercially productive and we were to
sell them, we would then have no control or right to them once they left
our hands," Mazzafera said, adding that his project has received no
funding from the producing sector.

The collection of the beans also predates international conventions
regulating the ownership of indigenous plants, which are often poached by
rich countries from poor countries via smugglers.

Brazil's rubber industry, once a world leader, faded into oblivion after
the British smuggled Brazilian rubber plants into their colonies in the
tropical forests of Southeast Asia.

"Researchers have used the plants to look for disease-resistant coffee
and actually found some with resistance to nematodes and other diseases,
but nobody ever thought to look for caffeine content in the collection,"
Mazzafera said.


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