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Marine gene rush

Genetically rich crabs at the Center for Marine Biotechnology in Baltimore. Credit: Cavan/Alamy

The genes that make life possible in the ocean’s extreme environments are its greatest treasures. Take the bacteria Shewanella oneidensis, which has a ‘take it or leave it’ approach to oxygen: it can live with or without it.

Or the California brown sea hare, a hermaphroditic mollusc also in possession of some of the biggest brain cells in the animal kingdom. Getting hold of the genetic sequences of such creatures could be very useful – and profitable. When an international group of academic marine scientists set about trying to find out who was acquiring patents on such marine gene sequences they made a startling discovery. They found that nearly half of the 12,998 patent sequences, derived from the genes of 862 marine species (ranging in size from a sperm whale to microscopic plankton) had been filed by just one company – BASF, the German chemicals giant. And nearly all were owned by organizations in just 10 rich countries.

What does this mean for humankind? Massive potential for biotechnology advances for the benefit of all, led by a dynamic corporate sector? Or a brand new form of global inequality? Can marine biodiversity be regulated – and how?

Robert Blasiak of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, one of the marine scientists who led the research on marine gene patents, talks about its consequences.

Robert Blasiak:The reporting on our findings led to quite a bit of finger-pointing at BASF. But the statistic that always makes me squirm is that 98 per cent of patent sequences are owned by entities in just 10 rich countries. That means about 170 countries have basically no stake at the moment.

That, to me, just doesn’t resonate with any of these international commitments to equality, to equity, to transfer of technology.

Right now the UN is in the middle of a process to negotiate a conservation and sustainable use treaty for the ocean’s biodiversity. The fourth [and last] meeting is in March 2020, at the end of which there may be a treaty ready for signing by member countries.

Vanessa Baird: How are the talks going?

Robert Blasiak: One of the challenges is that the science moves faster than policy. Look at genetic resources on land, regulated under the Nagoya Protocol for the past few years. The Protocol took 20 years to get going and during this time the biotechnology industry changed so dramatically that by the time the treaty was signed it did not match the purpose it was designed for.

I think there is a real risk that even really well-intentioned negotiators are going to create a new treaty that does not have the outcome people hope for.

The golden outcome is that everyone involved has equal access, everyone is able to participate and this leads to a lot of new advances in the medical industry and in biotech more broadly, and that these benefits are disseminated around the world and they help to spur a blue economy that’s sustainable and lasting.

I think the other direction it can go is that people get so nervous about the inequity and inequality that seem to be characterizing the industry right now, that they become very protective of access to these resources, very stringent about benefit-sharing so that it becomes a barrier for corporations and academic organizations that are interested in going out and doing research. That ends up harming everyone because then you don’t have this research and development and you don’t have any benefits to share with anyone.

So, there are two different poles and it’s hard to know which direction we are going in now.

Vanessa Baird: Companies like BASF must be watching keenly. Is there much lobbying?

Robert Blasiak: We were surprised to see that BASF were responsible for so many of the sequences. They are investing nearly 2 billion ($2.2 billion) a year in research and development. It’s part of the core operating strategy of this industry. It took us a while, but we were able to have a conversation with a representative of BASF. We explained our findings and we asked them: Do you understand why the company has such a dominant position? And they were surprised, I think, honestly surprised. One of the reasons is that if you compare the number of patents associated with marine biodiversity with those associated with terrestrial biodiversity, it’s a drop in the bucket, almost nothing for them. But a small island state in the Pacific, which has the biodiversity in its jurisdiction and is also looking for some way to participate in the blue economy, may have a very different perspective. Maybe it’s not an issue of scale but ethics and bioethics.

Vanessa Baird: What are BASF doing with the patents they’ve got?

Robert Blasiak: This is one of the things we asked. We learned it was likely related to big investment in polyunsaturated fatty acids [PUFAs, such as Omega-3] known to have beneficial health impacts. It’s important for early child brain development, is a dietary supplement, and found in high concentrations in fish, especially small fish.

They’ve been able to splice genes of marine micro-organisms into a land crop, canola, to produce an oil that is very high in Omega-3. There are implications for aquaculture too. If you feed salmon soya, they grow but they are not as nutritious to eat as if you feed them on small fish. Land crops rich in PUFAs could be fed to salmon, leaving more small fish for people to eat. This has implications for land use and the ocean system. So, this one innovation, using genetic resources, could reshape the aquaculture industry and international food systems.

Vanessa Baird: What do you think should happen?

Robert Blasiak: Marine biotechnology is a rapidly expanding industry and it has the potential to be one that’s sustainable. It’s not like seabed mining. If you collect a little bit of genetic sample from some place you are not going to be destroying ecosystems on a massive scale. It ticks a lot of boxes for being a positive growth sector for the blue economy. I really hope that the industry is not just limited to a small number of countries, and since this is an industry that is now being regulated it seems like a good opportunity to get things right.

Vanessa Baird:You and your colleagues have proposed that everyone should disclose the sample origin of marine genetic data.

Robert Blasiak: Transparency is low-hanging fruit, for academics and for industry too. It sets norms for the industry and can shine a light on the bad actors.

Another idea being discussed is that a certain percentage of all commercial profits related to innovations based on marine genetic resources from areas beyond national jurisdiction should go into a fund for capacity-building in the least-developed countries.

And another idea is that any genetic material collected in areas beyond national jurisdiction should be in freely accessible public databases. The downside is that poor countries that do not have a biotech industry may get access but they cannot really use it. So, put bluntly, you may be giving highly industrialized countries a leg up to find all the good stuff first, and patent it before others catch up.

Vanessa Baird: Isn’t the answer not to have patents on marine genetic material, full stop? It can’t be owned by anyone?

Robert Blasiak: The patent system makes me scratch my head sometimes. Maybe there shouldn’t be any capacity for protecting these innovations… But then you think of these giant multinationals that are pouring millions of R&D money into some new pharmaceutical that could benefit humanity. If they are not able to get patent protection, they don’t put that money in and we never get that pharmaceutical. There are no simple answers, it seems.

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