People expect to be paid for their labors. Nations demand compensation from entities exploiting their natural resources. Technological change may soon be upsetting some longstanding rules as to how biological assets are developed and who profits – or does not profit – from their efforts (1). Advances in DNA sequencing abilities, burgeoning databases and forthcoming breakthroughs in nucleic acid synthesis/assembly methods may change how business is done.
Information, DNA sequence data, is becoming quite valuable. Depositing DNA sequences into public databases has supercharged biomedical research, but the problem emerging now is that anyone can exploit it for any purpose. Imagine you trudged through the jungles of Brazil, survived near exsanguination by ravenous insects and a nasty case of Dengue (‘breakbone’) fever to collect a new species of orchid. You return to the laboratory with your prize and devote time, energy and money to produce a scientific paper describing it which includes the complete DNA base sequence of its genome. Being a dutiful member of the scientific community you publish your work and simultaneously download the sequence into one of the public databases for other colleagues to examine. A year later, I find your genomic sequence has just the gene I need for a plant improvement project and use your information to create a nifty little tool to improve crop yields. Perhaps I sell that tool for a nice profit. What do I owe you, the person who invested blood, sweat, tears and money to acquire the DNA sequence I just exploited? Am I obligated to compensate the nation of Brazil for the use of their bioresource? Is it biopiracy to use information deposited – freely disclosed – in a public database?
Scientists have long appreciated the extraordinary worth of sequence data troves to research. The Human Genome Project was founded and funded with tax dollars based on an optimistic understanding that the work would facilitate both future basic research efforts and the creation of commercial applications. Proposals to commence the next phase of The Human Genome Project are now being formulated (2). As scientists develop the capacity to artificially synthesize chromosome-sized DNA molecules, how and even if the original depositors of sequences discovered in nature are to be compensated for their efforts will become more contentious. Will future biotechnologists cite the case of John Moore, a patient who sought compensation for valuable cells taken from his body without proper informed consent (3). Ultimately, the courts were not convinced hospital patients had any rights regarding tissues removed from them, although Mr. Moore did receive some compensation due to the failure of the authorities to undertake adequate informed consent procedures. Perhaps this is a harbinger of a future in which financial rewards based on DNA sequences harvested from databases will never reach some contributors.
The impending advances in biotechnology will force the community to carefully define biopiracy and devise mechanisms to ensure just compensation for foundational work. Unless these issues are resolved open, public access to DNA sequence data may become a memory of the more innocent age of not so long ago.
(1) K. Servick. 2016. Rise of Digital DNA Raises Biopiracy Fears. Science, 17 November 2016. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/11/rise-digital-dna-raises-biopiracy-fears
(2) A. Pollack. 2016. Scientists Announce HGP-Write, Project to Synthesize the Human Genome. The New York Times, 2 June 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/03/science/human-genome-project-write-synthetic-dna.html?_r=0
(3) D. McLellan. John Moore, 56; Sued to Share Profits From His Cells. The Los Angeles Times, 13 October 2001. http://articles.latimes.com/2001/oct/13/local/me-56770