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close this bookBiodiversity Prospecting - A World Resources Institute Book (WRI, 1993, 352 pages)
close this folderI. A New Lease on Life
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentGrowing Demand for Genetic and Biochemical Resources
View the documentWhat is at Stake?
Open this folder and view contentsThe Evolution of Biodiversity Prospecting Institutions
Open this folder and view contentsBiodiversity Prospecting Guidelines
View the documentNotes
View the documentBibliography

Growing Demand for Genetic and Biochemical Resources

The driving forces behind the evolution of new biodiversity-prospecting institutions has been the growing demand for new genes and chemicals and a growing awareness that an abundant and virtually untapped supply of these resources exists in wildland biodiversity. While genetic and biochemical resources have long been important raw materials in agriculture and medicine, biotechnology is opening a new frontier. Furthermore, democratization and economic development in many developing countries has fanned interest in the local development of in-country resources.

In the pharmaceutical industry, after a hiatus in natural products research in the 1970s, interest has intensified over the past decade. As a source of novel chemical compounds, natural products research is an important complement to "rational drug design" - the chemical synthesis of new drugs. Natural products research has been revived by the development of efficient automated receptor-based screening techniques that have increased a hundred-fold the speed with which chemicals can be tested. Although only one in about 10,000 chemicals yields a potentially valuable "lead" (McChesney, 1992; Principe, unpublished ms.), these new techniques have made large natural products screening programs affordable. Researchers are thus returning to such natural sources of biologically active chemicals as plants, insects, marine invertebrates, fungi, and bacteria.

Another and quite different stimulus to natural products research has come from decades-old ethnopharmacology - the study of medicines used by traditional communities. Leads based on the use of plants or animals in traditional medicine can greatly increase the probability of finding a commercially valuable drug. For small pharmaceutical companies, drug exploration based on this indigenous knowledge may be more cost-effective than attempting to compete in expensive random screening ventures. For example, Shaman Pharmaceuticals - a small company in California - bases all of its drug exploration on plants used in traditional medicine (King, 1992). One of its most promising products is an anti-fungal agent derived from a species commonly used as a folk remedy for wound-healing in Peru and parts of Mexico. Other examples of natural products research programs now under way include the U.S. National Cancer Institute's five-year $8-million program to screen 10,000 substances against 100 cancer cell lines and HIV, and new screening programs at SmithKline Beecham, Merck & Co., Inc., Monsanto, and Glaxo. (See Table I.1.)

In the United States, some 25 percent of prescriptions are filled with drugs whose active ingredients are extracted or derived from plants. Sales of these plant-based drugs amounted to some $4.5 billion in 1980 and an estimated $15.5 billion in 1990 (Principe, unpublished ms.). In Europe, Japan, Australia, Canada, and the U.S., the market value for both prescription and over-the-counter drugs based on plants in 1985 was estimated to be $43 billion (Principe, 1989).

Table I.1. A Sample of Companies Active in Plant and Other Natural Product Collection and Screening

Abbott Laboratories
Active since: 1950
Collectors: University of Illinois; independent collectors
Capacity: 20-50 primary screens
Natural Product Focus: Microbes, plants
Therapeutic Groups: Anti-infective, cardiovascular, neuroscience, immunoscience

Boehringer Ingelheim
Active since: 1986-89
Collectors: University of Illinois, New York Botanical Garden (pilot program in 1986); independent collectors
Capacity: 8-12 screens; 5,000 compounds per year
Natural Product Focus: Plants, microbes
Therapeutic Groups: Cardiovascular, respiratory, gastroenterology

Bristol-Myers Squibb
Active since: company established
Collectors: Scripps Institute of Oceanography; Oncogen (pokeweed protein); independent collectors
Capacity: not available
Natural Product Focus: Fungi, microbes, marine, plants
Therapeutic groups: Anti-infective, cancer, antiviral

Active since: 1989 (marine); 1992 (tropical plants)
Collectors: Chinese Academy of Sciences; Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute; independent collectors
Capacity: 4,000 samples tested (1991)
Natural Product Focus: Microbes, marine, plants
Therapeutic groups: Cancer, cardiovascular, anti-inflammatory, CNS, respiratory, anti-allergy

Eli Lilly
Active since: active in 1950s and 1960s
Collectors: now collaborates with NCI, Shaman Pharmaceuticals and independent researchers
Capacity: not available
Natural Product Focus: Plants, algae
Therapeutic groups: Anti-infective, diabetes, cardiovascular, cancer, CNS, pulmonary, anti-viral, skeletal diseases

Glaxo Group Research
Active since: 1988
Collectors: Royal Botanic Gardens Kew; Chelsea Physic Garden; Institute of Medicinal Plant Development (Beijing); Biotics, Ltd.; University of Illinois/NCI
Capacity: not available to the public
Natural Product Focus: Fungi, microbes, marine, plants
Therapeutic groups: Gastrointestinal, respiratory, anti-infective, cardiovascular, dermatology, metabolic diseases, cancer, anti-inflammatory, infectious diseases

Inverni della Beffa
Active since: late 1950s
Collectors: in-house and independent collectors in Asia, Africa and South America
Capacity: in-house screening of hundreds of samples per year
Natural Product Focus: Plants
Therapeutic groups: Cardiovascular, gastro-enterologic and anti-inflammatory

Merck & Co., Inc.
Active since: 1991
Collectors: INBio; New York Botanical Garden; MYCOsearch
Capacity: not available to the public
Natural Product Focus: Fungi, microbes, marine, plants
Therapeutic groups: Respiratory, anti-allergy, anti-inflammatory, cancer, cardiovascular, anti-infective, antiviral, gastrointestinal, prostate, bone disease

Miles, Inc.
Active since: 1991
Collectors: contract companies; independent collectors
Capacity: not available to the public
Natural Product Focus: Microbes, plants, marine, fungi
Therapeutic groups: CNS, anti-infectives, cardiovascular, anti-diabetes, rheuma diseases

Active since: 1989
Collectors: Missouri Botanical Garden
Capacity: 9,000 samples per year, mainly from North America and Puerto Rico; number of screens is not available to the public
Natural Product Focus: Plants, microbes
Therapeutic groups: Anti-infectants, cardiovascular, anti-inflammatory

National Cancer Institute
Active since: 1960-1980; 1986-present
Collectors: U.S. Department of Agriculture (1960-80); Missouri Botanical Garden; New York Botanical Garden; University of Illinois; Kunming Institute of Botany, China; Central Drug Research Institute, India; Brigham Young University; Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute; Australian Institute of Marine Sciences; Coral Reef Research Foundation; Smithsonian Oceanographic; University of Connecticut; University of Hawaii at Manoa; University of Miami; Michigan Biotechnology Institute; Tel Aviv University
Capacity: 1960-1980: received almost 35,000 species of plants, 16,000 marine extracts, and 180,000 microbe extracts; under current program, receives almost 10,000 plant, marine, invertebrate, fungi, and algae samples each year
Natural Product Focus: Plants, microbes, insects, marine, fungi
Therapeutic groups: Cancer, AIDS, antivirals

Active since: not available
Collectors: Natural Product Sciences (now lapsed); New York Botanical Garden
Capacity: not available to the public
Natural Product Focus: Plants, spider venom
Therapeutic groups: Cardiovascular, anti-inflammatory, anti-infective, psychotherapeutic, anti-diabetes, atherosclerosis, cancer, gastrointestinal, immunoscience

Active since: 1990
Collectors: In-house experts in herbal medicine and over 15 collaborating entities throughout China and Asia
Capacity: 2,000-3,000 samples per year; 50 screens
Natural Product Focus: natural products used in Traditional Asian Medicine
Therapeutic groups: Immune, endocrine, CNS, cardiovascular

Active since: 1992
Collectors: University of São Paulo, Brazil; Chinese Academy of Sciences; independent collectors
Capacity: not available
Natural Product Focus: Plants
Therapeutic groups: Cancer

Rhone-Poulenc Rorer
Active since: 1991
Collectors: University of Hawaii; Beijing Medical University; Shanghai Medical University; Tianjin Plant Institute, China; independent collectors
Capacity: hundreds of samples per year; 9-20 screens
Natural Product Focus: Plants, marine, microbes
Therapeutic groups: Cardiovascular, anti-infective, AIDS, CNS, respiratory, bone disease, cancer

Shaman Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
Active since: 1989
Collectors: In-house botanists and a network of collaborators in Africa, Asia, and South America
Capacity: 200 samples per year
Natural Product Focus: Plants
Therapeutic groups: Anti-viral, anti-fungal, analgesics, diabetes

SmithKline Beecham
Active since: 1987
Collectors: Biotics, Ltd.; Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; University of Virginia; Scripps Institution of Oceanography; Morris Arboretum, University of Pennsylvania; MYCOsearch; in-house collectors
Capacity: 2-3,000 samples per year; in-house library of 17,800 natural product extracts; 10-15 screens
Natural Product Focus: Microbes, plants, marine
Therapeutic groups: Anti-infective, cardiopulmonary, CNS, gastrointestinal, anti-inflammatory

Sphinx Pharmaceuticals
Active since: 1990
Collectors: Biotics, Ltd.; independent collectors
Capacity: 15,000 samples per year; 3 screens
Natural Product Focus: Plants, marine, fungi, algae
Therapeutic groups: Psoriasis, anti-fungal, cancer

Sterling Winthrop
Active since: 1988
Collectors: Mississippi State University: Brigham Young University; New York Botanical Garden (one shipment); independent collectors
Capacity: few hundred samples per year
Natural Product Focus: Microbes, plants, marine
Therapeutic groups: Cancer, anti-inflammatory

Syntex Laboratories
Active since: 1986
Collectors: Chinese Academy of Sciences
Capacity: receive 10,000 plant extracts per year; 10 screens
Natural Product Focus: Plants, microbes
Therapeutic groups: Anti-inflammatory, bone diseases, immunology, cancer, gastroenterology, cardiovascular, antiviral, dermatology, oral contraceptives

Upjohn Co.
Active since: 1986-87
Collectors: Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica
Natural Product Focus: Microbes, plants
Therapeutic groups: CNS, cardiovascular, anti-infectives, AIDS

Biotechnology has also opened the door to greater use of biodiversity in agriculture. Genetic diversity has always been a key raw material in agricultural research, accounting for roughly one half of the gains in U.S. agricultural yields from 1930 to 1980 (OTA, 1987). But whereas previously only close relatives of crops could be used in breeding programs, now the genes from the entire world's biota are within reach.

Traditional crop and livestock breeding methods will still comprise most crop-breeding activity for years to come. But genetic engineering is an important new addition to breeders' toolboxes. For example, a gene responsible for a sulfur-rich protein found in the Brazil nut has been isolated, cloned, and transferred into tomatoes, tobacco, and yeast (Molnar and Kinnucan, 1989). And pest-resistant genes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) have been transferred to tobacco, tomatoes, potatoes, and cotton (Gasser and Fraley, 1992). All told, more than 40 species of food and fiber crops have been "transformed" through genetic engineering and, as evidence of likely rapid growth in the commercial importance of genetic engineering, almost 600 field tests of genetically engineered crops have now been undertaken in more than 20 countries.

Most of the initial commercial applications of genetic engineering will involve genes from bacteria and viruses since these groups are easy to work with. But plants, animals, fungi, and invertebrates are increasingly important sources of genes as well. A trout growth hormone gene, for example, has been transferred into carp (Crawford, 1990). Genes that produce a natural antifreeze in the winter flounder have been transferred into tobacco, where they protect the plant from freezing temperatures (Gladwell, 1990). And efforts are now afoot to transfer an insect-resistance gene from the cowpea to the potato (Ward and Coghlan, 1991).

The products of agricultural biotechnology are just now entering the marketplace, but by the year 2000 farm-level sales are expected to reach at least $10 billion and possibly as much as $100 billion annually, nearly equal to the total world market for agro-chemicals and seeds in 1987 (World Bank, 1991). Research expenditures are equally striking. In 1987, total R&D expenditure on agricultural biotechnology was estimated at $900 million (Giddings and Persley, 1990).

The demand for genetic resources in agriculture is thus likely to grow substantially as techniques for genetic manipulation are improved and investments in research begin to pay off. While much of this demand will be for genes from domesticated species, wild species too will increasingly be the focus of searches for novel genes. For example, the number of requests for samples of wild species of rice received by the International Rice Research Institute doubled between 1988 and 1990 (D. Sendahira, IRRI, pers. comm., Dec. 1990).

Apart from new chemical leads for pharmaceuticals and new genes for agriculture, other new uses of biodiversity abound. A Brazilian fungus discovered in 1986 has been patented by a University of Florida researcher as a natural fire ant control (IFAS, 1990). Chemicals extracted from the neem tree have been patented as natural insecticide (Stone, 1992). Scientists have now genetically engineered plants to produce biodegradable plastic (WSJ, 1992). Naturally occurring micro-organisms can be used in various environmental applications, including oil spill clean-up (OTA, 1991). And genetically modified organisms are proving valuable in such applications as mining, wastewater treatment, carbon-dioxide scrubbing, chemical detoxification, and bioremediation.

Growth in this "biotechnology industry" foretells increasing demands for novel genetic and biochemical resources. Between 1985 and 1990, the number of biotechnology patent applications filed in the United States grew by 15 percent annually - by 9,385 in 1990 alone (Raines, 1991). Total product sales for the U.S. biotechnology industry in 1991 totaled approximately $4 billion - a 38-percent increase over 1990 - and by the year 2000 sales are expected to have grown more than 10-fold to some $50 billion (IBA, 1992).