The newly appointed Director of the Oceans Institute at The University of Western Australia has co-authored a paper in the journal Science which raises concerns about the number of gene patents held by a few countries and proposes a new international system to ensure the fair use of marine genetic resources.
Professor Carlos M. Duarte is also a research scientist with the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), a partner organisation of UWA, and is leading the Malaspina Expedition from where the paper Marine Biodiversity and Gene Patents has been developed.
The paper outlines the problem that while there is a Convention on Biological Diversity applying to Marine Genetic Resources, 65 per cent of the world's ocean is in "Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction" where no consensus could be reached.
The paper reveals that ten countries own 90 per cent of the patents deposited with marine genes, with 70% belonging to the top three, United States, Germany and Japan.
"Australia has a sound policy on access to genetic resources, in line with the spirit of the Convention for Biological Diversity. However, Australia only holds a single patent on marine genes despite the vast marine biodiversity within its economic exclusive zone. All countries and agents in marine bioprospecting must play with the same set of rules. International ocean waters cannot be treated like the "wild west"," Professor Duarte said.
Marine genetic resources hold great promise to offer solutions to a broad range of problems including biomedical, food, and energy applications.
The researchers found that the global market for marine biotechnology was estimated at U.S. $2.4 billion in 2004, with estimated average growth of 5.9% per year with marine molecules including cancer- and HIV-fighting agents representing $1 billion and $125 million, respectively in 2005.
"We need to be able to find an equitable solution if we are to make the most of the biotechnological potentials of marine life to benefit of all humankind," Professor Duarte said.
"Current reporting requirements for Intellectual Property on marine genes do not require that the origin of the samples or even the nature of the species the genes originated from be disclosed. For instance, Switzerland is among the top 10 countries in number of marine gene patents and yet it has no national marine waters. Where did those genes originate from?
"Addressing inequality in the exploitation of marine molecules requires international consensus perhaps managed by a multinational authority to promote access and benefit-sharing for the common good," Professor Duarte said.
The UWA Oceans Institute that Professor Duarte directs was founded in 2009 with the vision to derive ocean-based solutions for humanity's greatest challenges.
*Editors note: Professor Duarte is currently in Europe to receive an honorary doctorate from Utrecht University in the Netherlands. He can be best contacted via email.