|Biodiversity Prospecting - A World Resources Institute Book (WRI, 1993, 352 pages)|
|I. A New Lease on Life|
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 Although only one in about 10,000 chemicals yields a potentially valuable "lead" (McChesney, 1992; Principe, unpublished ms.), these new techniques have made large natural products screening programs affordable.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
Glaxo Group Research
Inverni della Beffa
Merck & Co., Inc.
National Cancer Institute
Shaman Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
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).