National parks seek share of profitable science

Yellowstone's wildlife ranges from tiny bacteria to big bull elk.
Yellowstone's wildlife ranges from tiny bacteria to big bull elk. (Jason Williams)
By Mead Gruver
Monday, November 30, 2009

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 profits from their work.

The policy is expected to go into effect early next year following 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," Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said.

The new "benefits sharing" policy does not specify what percentage of profit the National Park Service should receive in every case. But a document released Monday 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 policy applies to all 84 million acres in the national park system, including the more than 200 parks hosting independent research. In 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 archaeological mysteries over the past 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 Nobel Prize-winning research, DNA testing has since become commonplace -- an industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

The National Park Service has not directly shared in those profits even though the bacteria species, Thermus aquaticus, arguably belonged to 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.

Recent science includes looking for ways to more efficiently break down organic matter for use in biofuels, such as ethanol. The lab allows its scientists to share in any profits from discoveries they patent.

Also, the Park Service is not looking for new revenue, he said, for "filling potholes." Roberto said it seems reasonable to give the National Park Service a share of profits related to research in national parks. But not everyone agrees that private concerns should be profiting from the parks.

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