One company owns half the patents for genes from marine species

A new study shows that a single corporation has registered nearly half of all existing gene patents from marine organisms.

A single corporation has registered nearly half of all existing patents associated with genes from marine organisms, according to a new study. Researchers from the University of British Columbia and the Stockholm Resilience Centre examined the patents associated with marine species and found that BASF, the world’s largest chemical manufacturer, has registered 47 per cent of the 12,998 genetic sequences from 862 marine species.

The holder of a gene patent decides how the gene can be used in commercial and noncommercial settings including research. The unique genetic adaptations of marine organisms, which have evolved to thrive in various ocean environments, make them particularly attractive to commercial enterprises. Of the top 30 largest patent owners, who accounted for 84 per cent of patents, all but five were corporate entities. Public and private universities accounted for 12 per cent, while governmental agencies, individuals, hospitals, and non-profit research institutes registered four per cent. Overall, entities located in just 10 countries accounted for 98 per cent of the patents, according to the study published in Science Advances.

"By 2025, the global market for marine biotechnology is expected to reach $6.4 billion and span a broad range of commercial purposes for pharmaceutical, biofuel, and chemical industries,” said Colette Wabnitz, research associate in the UBC Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, and co-author on the study.

While countries are protected from exploitative bioprospecting, meaning the search for commercially-valuable compounds from nature, by The Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization to the Convention on Biological Diversity, two-thirds of the Earth’s surface exists beyond national jurisdiction. A considerable portion of all patent sequences (11 per cent) are derived from species associated with deep sea and hydrothermal vent ecosystems, many of which are found in these unregulated areas.

"Roughly half of the Earth’s surface is left with no regulations on accessing or using genetic resources," said Robert Blasiak, fellow at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and first author on the study. “Establishing a legal framework for marine genetic resources will be a core issue when international negotiations on a new UN treaty on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) begin in earnest in September 2018."

Countries that are signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) have committed to promoting the development and transfer of marine technology, a commitment that may have implications in the upcoming negotiations. Of the 30 countries involved in patenting these resources, 27 are parties to UNCLOS.

"Equity is deeply embedded within UNCLOS and the language of the Sustainable Development Goals,” said Wabnitz. “Ensuring that the process moves forward in an inclusive manner means that states should increase their commitments to disclose the geographic origin of marine genetic resources, and promote greater international participation in discovering and using the benefits of marine biodiversity."

The authors note that the existence of a handful of corporations with a disproportionate influence also suggests an opening for more direct engagement with them.

"It is clear that these industry leaders must be involved in the upcoming BBNJ treaty negotiations, if only by virtue of their ownership of such a large share of the marine genetic sequence patents," said Wabnitz. "Such engagement could help companies distinguish themselves through their proactive behaviour and contribute to providing new norms and standards associated with transparency, capacity building, and benefit sharing."

Equity is deeply embedded within UNCLOS and the language of the Sustainable Development Goals.