Just under 13,000 genetic sequences derived from 862 marine species have been patented – 47% of them by a single company.
That’s the disturbing finding contained in a paper published in the journal Science Advances and written by researchers from the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden and the University of British Columbia in Canada.
“Who owns ocean biodiversity?” asks the team, led by Sweden’s Robert Blasiak.
It is, they point out, “an increasingly relevant question”, especially considering that much of the ocean realm exists beyond the sovereign, and hence legal, boundaries of any given nation.
To make their finding, Blasiak and colleagues accessed 38 million records of genetic sequences associated with patents. From this, they identified 12,998 sequences from 862 marine species.
A particular focus of legal efforts to lock down genetic information is species that live near deep sea hydrothermal events. The researchers found more than1600 sequences linked to patents, extracted from 91 species.
This, say the researchers, reflects “commercial interest in organisms from remote ocean areas”.
From one perspective, the situation uncovered by Blasiak and colleagues says as much about corporate power and national economic dominance as it does about patterns in scientific research.
Almost half of the patents were owned by one multinational corporation – chemical company BASF.
Patents held by universities – both public and private – accounted for 12% of the total, while non-profit research bodies, hospitals and governments collectively held another 4%.
On a global scale, 98% of the patents were held by bodies in just 10 countries. Some 165 countries held no marine life patents at all.
Blasiak says the situation regarding the patenting of marine genetic sequences requires urgent remedial action to ensure better equity and access to intellectual property, as well as better stewardship of ocean resources.
Genetic resources found on land, within nation-state boundaries, he adds, is protected from unethical exploitation by a global agreement called the Nagoya Protocol. Signatories commit to “fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilisation of genetic resources, thereby contributing to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity”.
“But there’s a huge missing piece, because two-thirds of the ocean exists beyond national jurisdiction,” he adds.
“That’s roughly half the Earth’s surface with no regulations on accessing or using genetic resources.”
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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