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Thermophiles in Kamchatka

Roald Hoffmann

Money, Ethics and Bacteria

I didn't expect to face questions of intellectual property rights and ethics in Kamchatka, but?. As described above, the molecular machinery of thermophiles works—in ways we don't yet completely understand. It does so under conditions that approximate more a heated reaction flask in a lab or a washing machine than an Ithaca winter. This has not escaped the attention of detergent concocters, who want an organic stain-removing enzyme, as well as biochemical supply houses. One enzyme, Taq polymerase, which is used in the polymerase chain reaction, apparently has a billion-dollar market.

Taq polymerase was isolated from a thermophilic bacterium, Thermus aquaticus, collected in Yellowstone National Park. The park receives not a penny from the manufacturers. The consequences: People get ideas—maybe there are other Taq polymerases around. Maybe we can remove dioxins, make a carbon-carbon bond in another, more efficient way. There's money to be made in bioprospecting. There were bioprospectors among us in Kamchatka. And not all working for companies. One industrial biologist was reported as saying, "I've never met an academic who didn't have something to sell." Or who wasn't thinking about a small startup company.

Second, you can understand that Yellowstone National Park is not happy about not getting anything back. How to reward, legitimately, a source of materials that will yield commercial profit—a place, a country? Licenses for sample collecting at Yellowstone now carry a proviso for a royalty if a product from an organism collected in the park is commercialized. I have a feeling that in the absence of a clear agreement of this kind, it will take many a court case to decide what happens if a bioprospecting company takes the DNA of a natural organism, and mutates it in the lab or splices it with a piece of DNA from another organism so as to enhance the production of an enzyme. Whose DNA is it at the end?

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