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Benefits-Sharing in the National Parks
Environmental Impact Statement

What is Bioprospecting?

Scientific research that looks for a useful application, process, or product in nature is called biodiversity prospecting, or bioprospecting.  In many cases, bioprospecting is a search for useful organic compounds in microorganisms, plants, and fungi that grow in extreme environments, such as rainforests, deserts, and hot springs.  

Biodiversity prospecting is nothing new.  In fact, people have been bioprospecting since the dawn of civilization.  Bioprospecting began when prehistoric people noticed that one plant root tasted better than another, or that some plants could be used as medicines.  Later, scientists identified the active ingredients in these plants.  People learned that the delicious plant root had a higher sugar content, or they discovered that a plant used for medicine contained aspirin (salicylic acid).

Today, scientists continue to find useful applications for compounds from nature but their search methods have changed.  Biochemists analyze plants, microorganisms, and other living things, but many of the things they work with are too small even to be seen with a microscope, so they use chemicals to perform experiments.  Many of these new discoveries are enzymes, biological molecules that are like catalysts for chemical reactions.  

Sometimes, the only way to obtain a useful organic compound is to harvest the organism that contains it. But thanks to improvements in science, useful compounds can now often be reproduced in a laboratory or factory, and sometimes they can be made by genetic engineering. For instance, insulin is a hormone vital to human digestion. Many people with diabetes must take insulin as a medicine. Pharmaceutical manufacturers use genetic engineering techniques to produce insulin from microbial livestock. They use bacteria specially bred for lab use, much like a smaller version of the white lab mouse. Molecular biologists can also make compounds by identifying the gene in a wild organism that controls production of that compound. The compound-producing gene is inserted into lab bacteria and as the bacteria grow, they produce more of the compound, which humans can then use.

photo of hand holding collection of specimen

Who are bioprospectors?


Sometimes scientists identify a need for a certain chemical and look for it in nature. Just as often, however, a scientist on a strictly academic project suddenly notices a valuable use for what started as curiosity-driven research.  This is the "Eureka!" occurrence, recently experienced by a researcher who accidentally discovered new kinds of antibiotics while studying frogs.  One scientist might look in microorganisms for new cancer- fighting drugs.  Another may just be trying to figure out how microorganisms live and accidentally discover how they protect themselves from something like cancer.  Even the scientists themselves can be surprised to find out who will be the next to make an important discovery.

Most of the potential bioprospecting in national parks is currently related to the study of microorganisms.  Microorganisms can live almost everywhere, including the bottom of the ocean, in Antarctica's ice, and in the boiling pools in Yellowstone National Park.  Scientists expect that the study of microorganisms will lead to many new discoveries over the next few decades because they have realized that most life on Earth is microscopic.  In fact, there are more microorganisms by weight, by volume, by total number and by number of different species than all of the animals and plants put together.

Any scientist who wants to study microorganisms in national parks must get a research permit. Research permits are only issued to legitimate scientists who can show that they will not harm national parks in any way.  Permits are never issued for harvesting natural products.  In fact, federal regulations prohibit harvesting of any natural product from national parks.  Scientists are only allowed to take small research samples out of the park, and they are not allowed to sell or commercialize those research samples.  If a scientist makes a practical or useful discovery during his or her research, the scientist's knowledge may be commercialized, but never the national park sample.

A Case Study

In 1966, Thomas Brock was studying microorganisms living in Yellowstone's hot pools.  He named one of the curious organisms he discovered Thermus aquaticus . This microorganism lives and thrives in water so hot that it would kill an ordinary animal.  Dr. Brock learned how to grow Thermus aquaticus in the laboratory and gave a living sample to the American Type Culture Collection (an organization like a "library" that collects microorganisms) for safekeeping.  Dr. Brock was not a bioprospector.

In 1985, a biotechnology company named Cetus Corporation was developing a new way to duplicate genetic material.  At that time, scientists were very interested in chromosomes but they were hard to study.  Chromosomes are made of genes and genes are made of DNA, but DNA is too small to study effectively.  Scientists knew that they had to make many accurate copies of DNA in order to get enough to work with.  A scientist at Cetus, Dr. Kary Mullis, had previously invented a way to duplicate DNA that was so useful, he got a Nobel Prize for the invention.  The new process was called the Polymerase Chain Reaction, or PCR.  Unfortunately, the high temperatures required by PCR destroyed the polymerase enzymes, requiring laboratory technicians to tediously add fresh enzymes throughout the PCR process.

Dr. Mullis' colleagues at Cetus added an enzyme to PCR that had the unusual ability to keep working at high temperatures.  That enzyme, named Taq polymerase, was isolated from Thermus aquaticus, which the scientists obtained from the American Type Culture Collection.  They learned to reproduce the enzyme in their laboratory.  PCR using Taq polymerase was so effective that a whole new scientific field has flourished as scientists finally had a convenient way to study DNA.  Dr. Brock's academic work in Yellowstone had a practical application that he never imagined during his studies twenty-five years previously.

Today, the DNA copying process, made practical because of the study of a Yellowstone microorganism, has become a major part of many DNA studies.  Taq polymerase helped permit the uses of DNA that are so familiar today - from matching DNA in criminal investigations, to medical diagnoses or cures, bioremediation of toxic wastes, and research into the basic building blocks of life.

update on 11/23/2009  I   http://nature.nps.gov/benefitssharing/whatis.cfm   I  Email: Contact Us
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