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Some of the ocean’s greatest treasures are the genes that make life in its extreme environments possible. These “marine genetic resources” have been key to some recent life-altering human innovations, such as novel chemotherapy drugs and the development of artificial blood for transporting donor organs. They are also used in cosmetics, industrial enzymes, emulsifiers, and the health industry.
The quest for finding more of these genetic resources has steadily grown over the past three decades, and is reflected in the increasing number of patent applications associated with these genetic resources.
While the outlook for commercial activities associated with marine genetic resources is looking brighter every day, significant gaps exist in the regulatory framework related to ownership.
With these newfound genetic resources having so many applications, it is important to understand who owns this information, and how it is handled. A new article published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution by centre researchers Blasiak, Jean-Baptiste Jouffray, Henrik Österblom and Colette Wabnitz from the University of British Columbia takes a closer look at the extent to which public research institutions such as universities are disclosing information on the origin of marine genetic resource material they seek to patent. Their study shows there is much to be done.
Access to genetic resources from marine areas beyond national jurisdiction remains unregulated, no benefit-sharing obligations exist, and states dispute whether these resources should be considered the common heritage of humankind, or remain freely accessible under the principle of freedom of the high seas
Robert Blasiak, lead author
Additionally, Blasiak recently published a Nature Biotechnology commentary piece that specifically addresses the role that interntional policy will play in the future of ownership and accessibility of marine gentic resources.
A total of 64% of the ocean exists beyond national jurisdiction, a vast area that is not governed by any national government. This area corresponds to roughly half the surface of the Earth, or 95% of the volume of the ocean. In such an immense space, it is obvious why location information on patents is vital for marine genetic resources. The authors point out a number of further reasons why this is important.
First, they highlight how “a lack of clarity about origin makes it difficult to monitor compliance with international regulations – particularly for marine species due to large gaps in regulatory framework.” The authors point out that the Nagoya Protocol, which regulates genetic resources, only applies within national jurisdictions. It also does not explicitly cover “digital sequence information”, the hundreds of millions of genetic sequence records stored in largely public databases.
Second, technological advances are making it possible to avoid using physical samples and instead rely simply on the genetic sequence information itself. This is problematic when it comes to benefit sharing that could come from a useful application of the newly found marine genetic resource.
Finally, without knowing the origin of the marine genetic resources, it becomes difficult to study taxonomic information, the evolution of pathogens, understand genetic diversity within and across populations, as well as better understand invasive species in a population.
The authors highlight three international policy processes that have been working to address regulation of marine genetic resources beyond national jurisdiction:
While these processes are all underway, some fear that appropriate regulation will not be developed in a timely and thoughtful manner. As co-author Henrik Österblom explains, “Historically, international policy has been dramatically outpaced by advances in biotechnology, and it is unclear whether the policy processes underway will result in effective regulations.”
In a related commentary, Blasiak specifically points out the impact we can expect from the intergovernmental conference launched by Resolution 72/249, as well as other parallel policy interventions. One possibility is that in the future governmental permission will be needed to access or utilise genetic sequence data from public databases, and that new monetary or non-monetary benefit sharing obligations will apply.
While the future regulation of marine genetic resources is yet to be determined, co-author Colette Wabnitz suggests that “the research community can nudge negotiations in a constructive direction by proactively disclosing sample origin information cross the full range of their commercial and non-commercial activities.”
Jean-Baptiste Jouffray elaborates, "While universities and public research organizations are key players in the collection and commercialization of marine genetic resources, they occupy a complex and ethically tenuous position."
The authors also highlight that journal editors and database administrators can play a crucial role in making disclosure of origin, as well as other additional information, on marine genetic resources the norm instead of the exception.
Furthermore, the authors state that voluntary disclosure of information also operates within the spirit of the Sustainable Development Goals, in creating a fairer and more equal world.
The article and commentary stem from previous work completed by the authors on marine genetic resources. The authors looked at database GenBank, and created a database of their own which included species name, patent number, patent data, and the party or parties registering the patent.
In the study, the authors only looked at patents registered by public institutions, such as universities, and if the origin of the sample was listed in the patent. Only 33 out of 293 patents from public research disclosed the origin of the marine genetic information. The authors then contacted those that disclosed location information to understand what drove them to do so.
Blasiak, R., Jouffray, J.B., Wabnitz, C.C. and Österblom, H., 2019. Scientists Should Disclose Origin in Marine Gene Patents. Trends in Ecology & Evolution
Blasiak, R. 2019. International regulatory changes poised to reshape access to marine genes. Nature Biotechnology. doi: 10.1038/s41587-019-0087-1
Robert Blasiak is a postdoctoral researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and senior research fellow with the NEREUS Program focusing on cooperation and conflict related to ocean management.
Jean-Baptiste Jouffray is a PhD candidate at the centre and the Global Economic Dynamics and Biosphere programme (GEDB) at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences looking at cross-scale driver interactions in marine social-ecological systems.
Henrik Österblom is deputy science director and a researcher working on globalization and marine social-ecological systems, in particular how fisheries and marine ecosystems are managed.
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