DAVIS, Calif. -- Five years after "Earth Summit" was convened in Rio de Janeiro to hammer out global development issues, the world's leaders are still arguing over how to share economic benefits from genetic resources between wealthy nations and the developing world.
While the politicians wrangle, a young molecular biologist at the University of California, Davis, has quietly offered up a modest solution to the problem.
Pamela Ronald, an assistant professor of plant pathology, has initiated a novel mechanism that pools university and industry resources to compensate nations for valuable genetic material. It is the first known attempt by a major research university to formally redress perceived inequities related to genetic material property rights.
For decades scientists have searched the jungles and forests of developing countries in hopes of finding plants and animals that might yield new information for basic research and have future commercial value. In many cases these have been wild plants carrying useful agricultural traits to be bred into their domesticated cousins.
In more recent years, with the growth of biotechnology, scientists also have become interested in cloning individual genes that produce beneficial traits such as disease- or pest-resistance when inserted into another plant.
As new laws evolved to allow protection of biotechnology inventions, research institutions were able to patent not only new plant varieties, but also novel genes. The rights to commercialize these genes now can be licensed to firms that are willing to invest in developing the genes into marketable products. While the research institution holding the patent and the firm commercializing the product may realize monetary returns from the gene, there are usually no benefits to the country from which the genetic material was initially gathered.
Perhaps two of the most controversial appropriations of genetic materials from the developing world involve the patenting of a process for extracting a pesticide from the seed of India's "neem" tree and the patenting of a human cell line sought for AIDS-related research that was obtained from a member of the tiny Hagahai tribe in Papua New Guinea. Both cases have raised charges of "biopiracy" and "genetic colonialism" from those championing the rights of developing countries and indigenous peoples.
"Although a lot of the genes used in biotechnology research come from the developing world, there hasn't been a convenient and fair method for rerouting the money back to the Third World," said Ronald, who recently found herself wrestling at the personal level with the ethics of genetic property rights.
In 1995, using plants native to West Africa, Ronald isolated the "Xa21" gene, the first cloned gene known to convey disease-resistance to rice. The University of California proceeded to patent the gene. It is likely that her discovery and subsequent engineering of disease-resistant rice plants will have far-reaching implications for production of rice, the staple food for more than half of the world's population. The use of such disease-resistance genes could pave the way to more environmentally sensitive production methods by eliminating the need for many of the chemical pesticides currently used in rice farming.
While attending a 1996 Rockefeller Foundation meeting on intellectual property rights, Ronald struck up a conversation with John Barton, the George E. Osborne Professor of Law at Stanford University. Barton had been working for years in the area of international environmental law, with a particular interest in the intellectual property rights of both plant breeders and nations supplying genetic material.
He and Ronald decided to combine their legal and scientific expertise to draft a proposal for a "Genetic Resources Recognition Fund" at UC Davis. With some fine-tuning, the proposal was accepted by campus administrators and the fund was established to finance UC Davis graduate fellowships for students from the countries that originally provided the plants carrying the gene.
The fund was designed specifically for Ronald's Xa21 rice gene, which originally came from rice plants found in the wilds of West Africa. Much of the breeding work related to the location of the gene in the rice plant was conducted at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.
According to the fund guidelines, any companies interested in licensing rights to the patented gene are encouraged to contribute to the fund. Money will flow into the fund only when a participating company begins to turn a profit on the commercialization of the gene. The firms that have signed licensing agreements with the university involving the Xa21 rice gene already have agreed to donate to the fund.
UC Davis' contribution will come from the campus chancellor's share of the licensing royalties, which normally goes to the department where the discovery was made. The campus initially has committed approximately $50,000 of future royalties to the fund in connection with Ronald's rice gene and will review the amount in the future.
When the licensing revenue does come in, the university will identify the country or countries that should benefit from the fund. The university will then select students from those nations to receive fellowships for graduate studies, probably in a scientific field related to the patented gene.
"While there are a few parallel examples in the pharmaceutical industry for compensating source nations for genetic materials, the UC Davis recognition fund is the first such provision in the agricultural sector of a major research university," attorney Barton said. "Of course some people will criticize the fund as not doing enough, while others will say that it goes too far."
Barton noted that he and Ronald struggled to balance what they see to be the university's obligation to the developing world with its responsibility to the taxpayers who support the institution.
Establishment of the fund has led the university and its industry licensing partners into uncharted waters. At the same time, it has provided faculty researchers with a practical, if modest, mechanism for exercising social responsibility in the global community.
UC Davis Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef, a plant biochemist, is enthusiastic about the new fund.
"Establishing this fund is, simply put, the right thing to do. Hopefully, it will serve as a model for other research institutions as they search for equitable ways to recompense source nations for genetic materials," Vanderhoef said. "The most effective form of assistance that universities can provide is in educating the people of the developing world."