Getting Rich on Public Land

Commercial "Bioprospecting" in the National Parks

The hot springs at Yellowstone National Park are worth billions. Commercial researchers have only begun to examine the multitude of heat-loving microorganisms or "thermophiles" living in Yellowstone’s 10,000 highly acidic geysers, hot-springs and boiling mudpots, but private companies have patented their findings. They’re using the organisms to develop HIV tests, detergents, plastics and DNA fingerprinting—and reaping huge profits. So far, they haven’t been compelled to share the wealth.

Research at Yellowstone"s hot springs has yielded huge biotech benefits.© GETTY IMAGES

The National Park Service (NPS), looking for new dollars to support its research and conservation initiatives, has proposed "bioprospecting" for a fee, ensuring that research done at the parks comes back to the federal government in the form of a percentage of the profits. Environmental groups, including the Edmonds Institute, the Alliance for Wild Rockies, the WildWest Institute and Wilderness Watch, have joined together in opposition, claiming that bioprospecting undermines the mission of the national parks and opens the door to potential harm, done in secret, to the parks" fragile ecosystems.

Beth Burrows, Edmonds Institute president and director, is an outspoken critic. She uses the term "bio-piracy" to describe the way companies have harvested microorganisms for profit. "It sounds like we’re mining for living organisms in the parks," Burrows says. "The parks have a very special mission to preserve and conserve for future generations. That’s the legal mission of the parks."

Eight years ago, Edmonds, a nonprofit committed to protecting ecosystems, was one of the lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit against NPS. The Institute had uncovered a deal between Yellowstone and Diversa Corporation in which the latter would be allowed to remove organisms and develop patentable products from Yellowstone in exchange for a yearly fee and a percentage of profits. That lawsuit led to a Draft Environmental Impact Study (DEIS), released last November, concluding that NPS would continue to permit commercial bioprospecting as long as the government agency shares in the benefits, an amount to be determined based on the success of a product.

Gerry Gaumer, a spokesman for NPS, says, "This [bioprospecting] is already going on through permitted activity. We’re requiring researchers to enter into an agreement before the results turn into monetary gain. This is not about the commercialization of the parks. Not a lot is going to change."

The money the parks stand to gain is significant. In the late 1960s, developers isolated a heat-stable enzyme from the Mushroom Pool in the Lower Geyser Basin at Yellowstone. Over a decade later, researcher Kary Mullis at Cetus Corporation developed the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) from the enzyme, for which he won the Nobel Prize. As a genetic research tool, PCR has been groundbreaking, allowing the replication of DNA to detect diseases, identify genetic fingerprints, clone genes and test for paternity. PCR technology has led to billions of dollars in revenue for its developers, none of which benefits the parks.

Scott Silver, the executive director of the preservation group Wild Wilderness since 1991, was once a scientist in the biotech industry and says bioprospecting usually has little impact on the environment. "It’s dipping a test tube into the hot pool or spooning dirt into a plastic bag," he says. But allowing bioprospecting could lead to more insidious alteration of the environment, he says. "Instead of taking a sample out of the hot pool and hoping enzymatic activity can be found," Silver says, "you can enrich the environment to encourage out-production of these organisms." A hot pool is the perfect place to grow starch, for example, but doing so could permanently alter the ecology.

At NPS, Gaumer insists that all the research is closely monitored. "Before someone gets a permit, we have to assess it," he says. Nonetheless, George Nickas, executive director at Wilderness Watch, says any commercial bioprospecting presents the danger of introducing foreign organisms into the environment, and it’s not a risk worth taking.

Burrows is concerned about a lack of transparency. The NPS proposal recommends using a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with interested companies, as was done with Diversa. In such agreements, any part of the research can be declared confidential. The public would not even be able to file a Freedom of Information (FOI) inquiry to access the information. "Under FOI, proprietary information is exempt from public view," Burrows says.

The environmental groups also worry that by allowing bioprospecting for a profit, the very notion of what a national park is will change. "We think this will injure the existence value of the park," Burrows says. She means that parks are part of the national consciousness; there for public enjoyment and education, and commercial gain cheapens them. As Nickas puts it, "The parks weren’t set aside to serve the economy."

As the ethical dilemma over commercial bioprospecting continues, the microorganisms are simmering in their hot bubbling baths, waiting to inspire the next great biotech discovery for someone’s significant profit.

—Brita Belli