Patenting marine genetic resources: Who owns ocean biodiversity?

June 06, 2018

Marine organisms have evolved to thrive in various ocean environments, resulting in unique adaptations that make them the object of commercial interest. Researchers from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and University of British Columbia have identified 862 marine species, with a total of 12,998 genetic sequences associated with a patent. They found that a single transnational corporation (BASF, the world's largest chemical manufacturer) has registered 47% of these sequences.

Public and private universities accounted for another 12%, while entities such as governmental bodies, individuals, hospitals, and nonprofit research institutes registered the remaining 4%. Overall, entities located in only 10 countries accounted for 98% the study published in Science Advances stated.

"Within national jurisdiction, the Nagoya Protocol protects countries from exploitative bioprospecting, and is meant to foster greater equity. But there's a huge missing piece, because two-thirds of the ocean exists beyond national jurisdiction. That's roughly half the Earth's surface with no regulations on accessing or using genetic resources," said Robert Blasiak, fellow at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and first author on the study. A considerable portion of all patent sequences (11%) are derived from species associated with deep sea and hydrothermal vent ecosystems (91 species, 1650 sequences), many of which are found in these unregulated areas beyond national jurisdiction.

"Establishing a legal framework for marine genetic resources will be a core issue when international negotiations on a new UN treaty on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) begin in earnest in September 2018," Blasiak noted.

Countries that are signatories to United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) have committed to promoting the development and transfer of marine technology "for the benefit of all parties concerned on an equitable basis"; a commitment which may have implications in the upcoming negotiations. Of the 30 countries involved in patenting these resources, 27 are parties to UNCLOS.

"Equity is deeply embedded within UNCLOS and the language of the Sustainable Development Goals," said Colette Wabnitz, Research Associate in the UBC Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, and co-author on the study. "Ensuring that the process moves forward in an inclusive manner means that states should increase their commitments to disclose the geographic origin of marine genetic resources, and promote greater international participation in discovering and using the benefits of marine biodiversity."

The authors note that the existence of a handful of corporations with a disproportionate influence also suggests an opening for more direct engagement with them. They believe such engagement could help companies distinguish themselves through their proactive behaviour and contribute to providing new norms and standards associated with transparency, capacity building, and benefit sharing. "By 2025, the global market for marine biotechnology is expected to reach $6.4 billion and span a broad range of commercial purposes for pharmaceutical, biofuel, and chemical industries," Wabnitz noted. "It is clear that these industry leaders must be involved in the upcoming BBNJ treaty negotiations, if only by virtue of their ownership of such a large share of the marine genetic sequence patents."
-end-
The study, "Corporate control and global governance of marine genetic resources" was published in Science Advances

Background:

Researchers first created a database of 38 million records of sequences of genetic material associated with patents by accessing the publicly available records of the PAT division of GenBank from the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Records of patent sequences from 862 marine species were extracted from the database and analyzed with regard to patent applicants, resulting in 12,998 relevant sequences registered by a total of 559 entities. Sequences from a wide range of species have been associated with patents, extending from the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) and giant oceanic manta ray (Manta birostris) to microscopic archaea and plankton. Information collected on the applicants led to their subsequent classification into three broad categories: companies, universities and their commercialization centers, and others (national institute or agency or government body, individuals, hospitals, nonprofit research institutes).

Supplementary material for this article is available at http://advances.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/4/6/eaar5237/DC1

Media contact:

Katherine Came
Communications Manager,
Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries,
The University of British Columbia
k.came@oceans.ubc.ca
604-827-4325

University of British Columbia

Related Marine Species Articles from Brightsurf:

Saving marine life: Novel method quantifies the effects of plastic on marine wildlife
Scientists at Tokyo Institute of Technology together with their international collaborators developed a novel quantitative method to quantify the effects of plastic on marine animals.

Life in a nutshell: New species found in the carapace of late cretaceous marine turtle
Fossils have often been known to tell stories of immobile organisms living in the hard tissues of dead ancient marine animals.

Two new species of parasite discovered in crabs -- discovery will help prevent infection of other marine species
Two new species of parasite, previously unknown to science, have been discovered in crabs in Swansea Bay, Wales, during a study on disease in the Celtic and Irish Seas.

Marine energy devices likely pose minimal impacts to marine life, report shows
On World Oceans Day, an international team of marine scientists reports that the potential impact of marine renewable energy to marine life is likely small or undetectable.

Marine species are outpacing terrestrial species in the race against global warming
Global warming is causing species to search for more temperate environments in which to migrate to, but it is marine species -- according to the latest results of a Franco-American study mainly involving scientists from the CNRS, Ifremer, the Université Toulouse III-Paul Sabatier and the University of Picardy Jules Verne -- that are leading the way by moving up to six times faster towards the poles than their terrestrial congeners.

Ocean 'breathability' key to past, future habitat of West Coast marine species
Ocean breathability, which combines the oxygen levels, a species' oxygen needs and the water temperature, matches the shifts in northern anchovy populations from the 1950s to today.

Marine waste management: Recycling efficiency by marine microbes
It was only relatively recently that tiny, single-celled thaumarchaea were discovered to exist and thrive in the pelagic ocean, where their population size of roughly 1028 (10 billion quintillion) cells makes them one of the most abundant organisms on our planet.

As the ocean warms, marine species relocate toward the poles
Since pre-industrial times, the world's oceans have warmed by an average of one degree Celsius (1°C).

Global study shows how marine species respond as oceans warm
A global analysis of over 300 marine species spanning more than 100 years, shows that mammals, plankton, fish, plants and seabirds have been changing in abundance as our climate warms.

Directed species loss from species-rich forests strongly decreases productivity
At high species richness, directed loss, but not random loss, of tree species strongly decreases forest productivity.

Read More: Marine Species News and Marine Species Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.