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National parks seek share of profits from research conducted on grounds

By Mead Gruver
Associated Press / November 30, 2009

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CHEYENNE, Wyo. - A soon-to-be-implemented policy for scientists who are permitted to conduct research in national parks will give the National Park Service a share of any profits from their work.

The policy is expected to go into effect early next year after more than a decade of concern and a lawsuit over “bioprospecting’’ in Yellowstone National Park. Bioprospecting, a hybrid of the words “biodiversity’’ and “prospecting,’’ is the search for organisms that promise scientific breakthroughs in medicine and chemistry.

“This is about the public, which owns places like Yellowstone, getting some kind of benefit if someone has a commercial product based on research which started in the park,’’ said Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash.

The new “benefits sharing’’ policy doesn’t specify what percentage of profits the National Park Service should receive in every case. But a document released last week outlining the policy offers a rough estimate of the potential benefit to the park system - between $635,000 and $3.9 million a year, eventually.

The new policy applies to all 84 million acres in the national park system, including the more than 200 parks hosting independent research. In many of those parks including Yellowstone, the main quarry of bioprospectors is bacteria.

An organism living in the wilderness and visible only with a microscope might seem an unlikely source of big money. But keep in mind how much DNA testing has helped to diagnose disease, solve crimes, study plants and animals, and even solve old archeological mysteries over the last 20 years or so.

In the mid-1980s, scientists discovered that a bacteria species from a Yellowstone hot spring could make DNA testing much more practical. Because of that research, which was awarded the Nobel Prize, DNA testing has since become commonplace - an industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

The National Park Service hasn’t directly shared in those profits even though the bacteria species, Thermus aquaticus, arguably belonged the American public.

“It’s been a long time coming,’’ Frank Roberto, a microbiologist who has been studying Yellowstone bacteria for nearly 20 years, said of the benefits sharing policy.

Roberto works for the Idaho National Laboratory, a federal lab 70 miles southwest of Yellowstone. The lab near Idaho Falls holds several patents derived from research involving Yellowstone bacteria.

In Yellowstone, just about all research involves collecting no more than a test tube or Petri dish of microscopic organisms - not nearly enough to cause environmental damage, Nash said.

Also, the Park Service isn’t looking for new revenue, he said, for “filling potholes.’’