Bioprospecting is the process of discovery and commercialization of new products based on biological resources. These resources or compounds can be important for and useful in many fields, including pharmaceuticals, agriculture, bioremediation, and nanotechnology, among others.[1] Between 1981-2010, one third of all small molecule new chemical entities approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) were either natural products or compounds derived from natural products. Despite indigenous knowledge being intuitively helpful, bioprospecting has only recently begun to incorporate such knowledge in focusing screening efforts for bioactive compounds.[2]

Bioprospecting may involve biopiracy, the exploitative appropriation of indigenous forms of knowledge by commercial actors, and can include the patenting of already widely used natural resources, such as plant varieties, by commercial entities.[3]


The term biopiracy was coined by Pat Mooney,[4] to describe a practice in which indigenous knowledge of nature, originating with indigenous peoples, is used by others for profit, without authorization or compensation to the indigenous people themselves.[5] For example, when bioprospectors draw on indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants which is later patented by medical companies without recognizing the fact that the knowledge is not new or invented by the patenter, this deprives the indigenous community of their potential rights to the commercial product derived from the technology that they themselves had developed.[6] Critics of this practice, such as Greenpeace,[7] claim these practices contribute to inequality between developing countries rich in biodiversity, and developed countries hosting biotech firms.[6]

In the 1990s many large pharmaceutical and drug discovery companies responded to charges of biopiracy by ceasing work on natural products, turning to combinatorial chemistry to develop novel compounds.[4]

Famous cases of Biopiracy

The Maya ICBG controversy

The Maya ICBG bioprospecting controversy took place in 1999–2000, when the International Cooperative Biodiversity Group led by ethnobiologist Brent Berlin was accused of being engaged in unethical forms of bioprospecting by several NGOs and indigenous organizations. The ICBG aimed to document the biodiversity of Chiapas, Mexico and the ethnobotanical knowledge of the indigenous Maya people – in order to ascertain whether there were possibilities of developing medical products based on any of the plants used by the indigenous groups.[8][9]

The Maya ICBG case was among the first to draw attention to the problems of distinguishing between benign forms of bioprospecting and unethical biopiracy, and to the difficulties of securing community participation and prior informed consent for would-be bioprospectors.[10]

The rosy periwinkle

The rosy periwinkle case dates from the 1950s. The rosy periwinkle, while native to Madagascar, had been widely introduced into other tropical countries around the world well before the discovery of vincristine. Different countries are reported as having acquired different beliefs about the medical properties of the plant.[11] This meant that researchers could obtain local knowledge from one country and plant samples from another. The use of the plant for diabetes was the original stimulus for research. Effectiveness in the treatment of both Hodgkin's Disease and leukemia were discovered instead.[12] The Hodgkin's lymphoma chemotherapeutic drug vinblastine is derivable from the rosy periwinkle.[13]

The neem tree

In 1994, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and WR Grace received a European patent on methods of controlling fungal infections in plants using a composition that included extracts from the neem tree (Azadirachta indica), which grows throughout India and Nepal.[14][15][16] In 2000 the patent was successfully opposed by several groups from EU and India including the EU Green Party, Vandana Shiva, and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) on the basis that the fungicidal activity of neem extract had long been known in Indian traditional medicine.[16] WR Grace appealed and lost in 2005.[17]

The Enola bean

The Enola bean is a variety of Mexican yellow bean, so called after the wife of the man who patented it in 1999.[18] The allegedly distinguishing feature of the variety is seeds of a specific shade of yellow. The patent-holder subsequently sued a large number of importers of Mexican yellow beans with the following result: "...export sales immediately dropped over 90% among importers that had been selling these beans for years, causing economic damage to more than 22,000 farmers in northern Mexico who depended on sales of this bean."[19] A lawsuit was filed on behalf of the farmers, and on April 14, 2005 the US-PTO ruled in favor of the farmers. An appeal was heard on 16 January 2008, and the patent was revoked in May 2008. A later appeal to the court against the revocation was unsuccessful as of October 2, 2008.

Basmati rice

In 2000, the US corporation RiceTec (a subsidiary of RiceTec AG of Liechtenstein) attempted to patent certain hybrids of basmati rice and semidwarf long-grain rice.[20] The Indian government intervened and several claims of the patent were invalidated.


Hoodia, a succulent plant, originates from the Kalahari Desert of South Africa. For generations it has been known to the traditionally living San people as an appetite suppressant. In 1996 South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research began working with companies, including Unilever, to develop dietary supplements based on hoodia.[21][22][23][24] Originally the San people were not scheduled to receive any benefits from the commercialization of their traditional knowledge, but in 2003 the South African San Council made an agreement with CSIR in which they would receive from 6 to 8% of the revenue from the sale of Hoodia products.[25]

In 2008 after having invested €20 million in R&D on hoodia as a potential ingredient in dietary supplements for weight loss, Unilever terminated the project because their clinical studies did not show that hoodia was safe and effective enough to bring to market.[26]

Further cases

The following is a selection of some of the further cases in recent biopiracy studies. Most of them do not relate to traditional medicines.

Patent law

One common misunderstanding is that pharmaceutical companies patent the plants they collect. While obtaining a patent on a naturally occurring organism as previously known or used is not possible, patents may be taken out on specific chemicals isolated or developed from plants. Often these patents are obtained with a stated and researched use of those chemicals. Generally the existence, structure and synthesis of those compounds is not a part of the indigenous medical knowledge that led researchers to analyze the plant in the first place. As a result, even if the indigenous medical knowledge is taken as prior art, that knowledge does not by itself make the active chemical compound "obvious," which is the standard applied under patent law.

In the United States, patent law can be used to protect "isolated and purified" compounds – even, in one instance, a new chemical element (see USP 3,156,523). In 1873, Louis Pasteur patented a "yeast" which was "free from disease" (patent #141072). Patents covering biological inventions have been treated similarly. In the 1980 case of Diamond v. Chakrabarty, the Supreme Court upheld a patent on a bacterium that had been genetically modified to consume petroleum, reasoning that U.S. law permits patents on "anything under the sun that is made by man." The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has observed that "a patent on a gene covers the isolated and purified gene but does not cover the gene as it occurs in nature".[28]

Also possible under US law is patenting a cultivar, a new variety of an existing organism. The patent on the enola bean (now revoked) was an example of this sort of patent. The intellectual property laws of the US also recognize plant breeders' rights under the Plant Variety Protection Act, 7 U.S.C. §§ 2321–2582.[29]

Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)

The CBD came into force in 1993. It secured rights to control access to genetic resources for the countries in which those resources are located. One objective of the CBD is to enable lesser-developed countries to better benefit from their resources and traditional knowledge. Under the rules of the CBD, bioprospectors are required to obtain informed consent to access such resources, and must share any benefits with the biodiversity-rich country.[30] However, some critics believe that the CBD has failed to establish appropriate regulations to prevent biopiracy.[31] Others claim that the main problem is the failure of national governments to pass appropriate laws implementing the provisions of the CBD.[32] The Nagoya Protocol to the CBD (negotiated in 2010, expected to come into force in 2014) will provide further regulations. The CBD has been ratified by all countries in the world except for Andorra, Holy See and United States. See also the 1994 Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) and the 2001 International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture .

Bioprospecting contracts

The requirements for bioprospecting as set by CBD has created a new branch of international patent and trade law : bioprospecting contracts. Bioprospecting contracts lay down the rules, between researchers and countries, of benefit sharing and can bring royalties to lesser-developed countries. However, although these contracts are based on prior informed consent and compensation (unlike biopiracy), every owner or carrier of an indigenous knowledge and resources are not always consulted or compensated,[33] as it would be difficult to ensure every individual is included.[34] Because of this, some have proposed that the indigenous or other communities form a type of representative micro-government that would negotiate with researchers to form contracts in such a way that the community benefits from the arrangements.[34] Unethical bioprospecting contracts (as distinct from ethical ones) can be viewed as a new form of biopiracy.[31]

An example of a bioprospecting contract is the agreement between Merck and INBio of Costa Rica.[35]

Traditional knowledge database

Due to previous cases of biopiracy and to prevent further cases, the Government of India has converted traditional Indian medicinal information from ancient manuscripts and other resources into an electronic resource; this resulted in the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library in 2001.[36] The texts are being recorded from Tamil, Sanskrit, Urdu, Persian and Arabic; made available to patent offices in English, German, French, Japanese and Spanish. The aim is to protect India's heritage from being exploited by foreign companies.[37] Hundreds of yoga poses are also kept in the collection.[37] The library has also signed agreements with leading international patent offices such as European Patent Office (EPO), United Kingdom Trademark & Patent Office (UKTPO) and the United States Patent and Trademark Office to protect traditional knowledge from biopiracy as it allows patent examiners at International Patent Offices to access TKDL databases for patent search and examination purposes.[27][38][39]

See also


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Bibliography and resources

  • The Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (United Nations Environment Programme) maintains an information centre which as of April 2006 lists some 3000 "monographs, reports and serials".
  • Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (United Nations Environment Programme), Bibliography of Journal Articles on the Convention on Biological Diversity (March 2006). Contains references to almost 200 articles. Some of these are available in full text from the CBD information centre.
  • Shiva V (1997). Biopiracy : The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge. South End Press.
  • Chen J (2005). "Biodiversity and Biotechnology: A Misunderstood Relation". Michigan State Law Review. 2005: 51–102. SSRN 782184.
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