Who owns taro?
On an idyllic spit of lush landscape at the University of Hawaii sprout the massive heart-shaped leaves of hundreds of taro plants.
Native Hawaiians hold the plant sacred in cultural lore, which is why many are now demanding that the university relinquish three patents claiming ownership to taro varieties developed by one of its scientists.
It's just the latest collision between indigenous people and commercial interests over so-called biological prospecting, the growing practice of scouring the globe from the Amazon to the deep ocean for exotic plants, microbes and other living things with biological properties ripe for commercial exploitation. A United Nations University report concluded that 62 percent of all cancer drugs were created from bioprospecting discoveries.
The patenting of such living things has exploded in the last few years from less than a dozen in 2000 to more than 100 last year, according to UH researcher Stuart Donachie.
"There are things here worth looking for," said Donachie, who has discovered five new bacteria on remote islands in the state. "They could provide something new that benefits society."
University of Hawaii taro field coordinator Pomaika'i Kaniaupio-Crozier harvested a taro plant yesterday from a Hawaiian Studies field at UH-Manoa. Kaniaupio-Crozier is a native Hawaiian and is helping lead a battle to keep UH from genetically modifying taro plants.
The venom of a deadly sea snail found off the coast of the Philippines led Elan Pharmaceuticals
to develop the painkiller Prialt, which the Food and Drug Administration approved in 2004.
The key ingredient in the breast cancer drug Taxol owned by Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. is taken from the bark of the yew tree and Wyeth's kidney transplant drug Rapamune comes from Easter Island soil.
Such bioprospecting is on the rise and has huge potential for good, according to the researchers going to sea, climbing mountains and trekking to obscure corners of the world in search of exotic and undiscovered life.
The expeditions could ultimately make hazardous waste cleanup more affordable, reduce pollution and make better medicines -- if genetic discoveries can be exploited and controlled.
Pharmaceutical companies view bioprospecting as an alternative for drug development to their traditional, chemistry-based manufacturing process.
Other companies are looking to nature for industrial applications such as using an enzyme found in deep sea vents to streamline ethanol production while still others are hunting Antarctica for useful microbes.
But tough ethical questions are being raised about allowing private companies to patent and profit from Mother Nature: Who owns the living thing that yields the revenue? Are companies simply pirating local knowledge and resources from indigenous people?
The area is mostly unregulated, especially in international waters, and there are mounting calls in the United States and the United Nations to establish legal frameworks for such work.
Legislation in the Hawaii legislature to ban bioprospecting has stalled, though lawmakers are expected to soon release an inventory of all bioprospecting agreements that the University of Hawaii has with industry.