Saturday, April 25, 2009

What is Biopiracy

Plants constitute a rich source of therapeutically important products. Only 10 percent of plant species have already been tested for pharmaceutical value. About 120 medicines commonly prescribed by doctors are based on plant extracts. Some of the most important medicines used by humans have a history that traces back to medicinal plants collected from wild flora, and others are just now beginning to be discovered.

Aspirin is one example of the health benefits provided by plants. This medicine is based on acetyl-salicylic acid, a very common analgesic. Its history began with the Greek doctor Hypocrites, who in the fifth century B.C. used a bitter powder to treat pain and lower fever. This mystical powder was collected from the cork of Salix a tree of the family Salicaceae. Although the mode of action of aspirin was only unraveled in the 1970s, this medicine has been used as a painkiller and to improve the elasticity of the circulatory system for millions of people. If this species had gone extinct before that discovery, man would have never known the valuable medicine. In fact, Americans annually consume about 80 billion aspirin tablets.

The history of biodiversity collection dates back to 1500 B.C., when Egyptian rulers gathered plant species from their military expeditions. Charles Darwin, the renowned naturalist of the 19th century, accomplished one of the most famous trips for biological collection. During his travels on the ship the HMS Beagle, he collected samples of everything that interested him, from which he elaborated the Theory of the Evolution, the foundation of modern biological research. More recently, Nicolai I. Vavilov, a Russian scientist in the beginning of the 20th century, also collected samples of plant species from five continents, with which he established the Theory of the Center of Origin of the Crop Species.

None of those famous expeditions were legally or morally questioned. Today, the paradigms and laws have changed, and biopiracy is considered a crime. Biopiracy is the unauthorized appropriation of any biological resources. The extraction of aromatic, ornamental, or medicinal plants without the proper authorization is considered biopiracy. Natural resources primarily from Africa and South America are becoming increasingly valued in the international market. In the 1500s, Brazilian wood was prized for making red dyes; today, targeted Brazilian species number about 50,000 plant species, 534 mammals, 3,000 fishes, approximately 1,700 birds, 500 amphibians, and 470 reptiles. The wealth of Brazilian biodiversity makes the country a valuable source of genetic diversity. Every year, thousands of tourists, scientists, environmentalists, and biologists travel around the world under the umbrella of ecological tourism. Although this type of travel has improved research on biodiversity, it has also caused problems relating to biopiracy.

Scientists and pharmaceutical companies are obtaining several patents using plant extracts from different regions around the world. Recently, the English chemist Conrad Gorinsky received a worldwide patent for two pharmaceutical products: Rupununine, extracted from seeds of the Octotea rodioei, for birth control; and Cunaniol, a nervous system stimulant, extracted from Clibadium sylvestre. The use of the plants is part of the traditions of the native Wapixana Indians, who live in the Brazilian state of Roraima. Several other bioprospecting projects are underway in Africa and other places to identify plant extracts, animal toxins, and microorganisms for different purposes such as production of plastics or ore purification and fermentation processes.

When a sample of a species is collected illegally and a new drug or an isolated gene from that sample is patented, the patent can be revoked. If there is proof that the active ingredient used in the new drug was in public use, even if restricted to an indigenous tribe, revocation of the patent is possible. The great dilemma in patenting a natural product is that pharmaceutical companies take advantage of the ethnobiological knowledge of indigenous populations, and later, the companies are the only ones to collect profits from the marketing and production of the drugs.

To prevent such exploitation, regulations are being made worldwide to govern the use of biological diversity. In 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (ECO 92) met in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with representatives from 120 countries. This conference recognized the national sovereignty of the nations and the genetic resources within their borders. Beyond this international work, the national laws of each country further govern the conservation and development of biodiversity within their respective boundaries. The Brazilian Congress recently recognized the importance of the protection of its biodiversity. This came after an accord with some multinational companies relating to the development of medicines resulting from the exploration of plants and microorganisms from the Atlantic rainforests and the Amazon.

Only 20 years ago, legal aspects related to the collection of samples of plants, microbes, and animals were largely ignored. In most cases, researchers simply made a trip to the place where the species of interest could exist in nature, collected the samples, and returned to their laboratories. Clearly laws didn't exist to regulate that practice. Sometimes, researchers obtained informal authorization from the local authority or from the landlord where the samples were collected. The days of locating, collecting, and returning home are running out, at least legally in most countries. More often it is today considered biopiracy.

Tags: Bio Technology, Bio Genetics, Bio diversity

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