By JIM ROBBINS
From the NEW YORK TIMES
Published: November 28, 2006
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. In the 1980s, a researcher at the Cetus Corporation named Kary Mullis was searching for a way to speed the replication of DNA. Enzymes used to amplify the genetic code broke down when they were heated. Dr. Mullis had the idea of using a heat-resistant enzyme called Taq polymerase, which made DNA amplification a central tool in genetic research, earned him a Nobel Prize and generated hundreds of millions of dollars in sales.
The reason the enzyme was heat-tolerant is that it came from a bacterium called Thermus aquaticus that lived in the simmering waters of Mushroom Pool here. Taq, as it came to be known, was first identified in 1966. But despite how spectacularly useful it has turned out to be, no royalties have gone to Yellowstone or the National Park Service.
In bio-prospecting circles, its called the great Taq rip-off, said Tom Olliff, chief of the Yellowstone Resource Center. The director of the National Park Service told us not to let that happen again.
To that end, the Park Service recently released a draft environmental impact statement that proposes to create a policy for what it calls benefits sharing with the service if any commercial discoveries grow out of research in the national parks.
While the commercial use of specimens from the parks is prohibited, commercializing the results of research on those specimens is not prohibited or regulated. Companies cannot patent the organism, but they can patent the results of their research.
For example, the Park Service does not allow the sale of ginseng collected in the park, but creating and selling synthetic ginseng based on research using the parks ginseng, collected with a permit, is not banned.
As ecosystems in the United States are altered, the national parks have become increasingly valuable as repositories of biological information. More than 200 parks have independent research projects, and Yellowstone alone has more than 200, the most of any park.
Yellowstone, which plays an outsize role in park research because of the interest in thermophiles life too small to see in water too hot to touch, as some say signed an agreement in 1997 with the Diversa Corporation to share in the profits generated by enzymes taken from the park. The Park Service was sued by groups who contended that the agreement violated rules prohibiting the parks ban on the sale or commercial use of park property. A judge dismissed the lawsuit, but the service had to prepare an environmental impact statement.
While the draft statement covers research in all national parks, the most active area for commercialization is bio-prospecting, the study of microbes for enzymes that have industrial applications. More specifically the research has focused on extremophiles, microbes that have evolved in extreme environments, like the hot springs of Yellowstone or the damp caves of Carlsbad Caverns.
The Park Services preferred approach does not set a standard percentage for royalties but evaluates each case. It depends on how successful we feel the product is, Mr. Olliff said. Were as likely to get nonmonetary benefits as monetary. Benefits could include research and equipment.
Some park watchdog groups, like the National Parks and Conservation Association, support benefit sharing, with caveats. In the park services preferred alternative in the environmental statement, agreements between companies and the Park Service could be confidential, which the association opposes.
Its critical that the agreements between the Park Service and companies be fully transparent, said Tim Stevens, Yellowstone program manager for the association in Livingston, Mont.
Some worry that park resources might be damaged, a concern that Mr. Olliff played down. Bio-prospecting is an unfortunate term, he said. It conjures a picture of your grandfather out there with a pick and shovel digging up the ground. But a backpack trip has more impact. Mr. Olliff says bio-prospecting involves collecting a beaker full of water or a teaspoon of mud.
But Scott Silver, the head of a group called Wild Wilderness in Bend, Ore., and a former industrial enzyme researcher, said that while he was not opposed to research in the parks, there could well be impacts. One technique that microbial researchers use, Mr. Silver said, is called in situ enrichment selection. For example, he said, to enhance the search for an enzyme that modifies corn starch, researchers might throw a handful of corn starch into the hot springs.
You alter the ecology and those that survive in the new environment would thrive, Mr. Silver said. Its a very effective way of increasing the viability of what you are looking for.
With as many as 600 people doing research in Yellowstone, there can be environmental impacts, Mr. Olliff said, but it is carefully monitored.
Others say that commercializing any aspect of the parks sets the wrong precedent. We have grave concerns, said Beth Burrows, director of the Edmonds Institute, which researches public policy issues concerning biology. Its a critical decision about how we choose to steward the commons.
Ms. Burrows says allowing corporations to do commercial research in the parks diminishes the publics sense of ownership. She favors public research.
It could be done by the National Park Service and other agencies and the science itself would be published in the public interest, she said. This is, sadly, another step along the path of turning our national treasures into corporate booty.