EJB Electronic Journal of Biotechnology ISSN: 0717-3458
© 2002 by Universidad Católica de Valparaíso -- Chile

Gene Discovery, Ownership and Access for Developing Countries in the Era of Molecular Genetics

Levi Mansur
Facultad de Agronomía
Universidad Católica de Valparaíso
Casilla 4-D Quillota V Región Chile
Tel: 56 33 274539
Fax: 56 33 274570
E-mail: Levi@entelchile.net


Genetic variability fuels crop improvement and has sustained crop evolution and adaptation for thousands of years.  It is a vital resource for humanity´s future survival given that increases in crop production will most likely come from higher yields per unit area rather than from new crop lands. Intensive plant breeding using scientific methods during much of the 20th century has led to significant gains in productivity for most major world crops.  However, the cost of these achievements has been narrower genetic variability within the elite gene pool, increased genetic uniformity and vulnerability in crops, and erosion of native genetic resources (Lee, 1998). The consequences of narrow genetic pools have been disastrous in the past. Examples abound: the infamous Irish famine of 1850 caused by a genetically uniform potato crop susceptible to blight; the famine triggered in India in 1943 by the brown spot disease of rice. More recently the Southern corn blight that struck the United States corn industry in 1970 caused over a billion dollars worth of damage (Horsfall, 1972). Future consequences will be harsh unless steps are taken to reverse the dangerous trend in genetic erosion of our main sources of food. Furthermore, it is suspected that reduced genetic variability in most major crops is responsible for the decrease in genetic gain for yield (Lee, 1998). Among the important causes for this narrow genetic base is that crop species have undergone genetic bottlenecks during the domestication and breeding processes (Tanksley and McCouch, 1997). In the past it has been difficult to use exotic germplasm because useful genes are often linked to genes controlling undesirable traits and there were no tools to go after specific genes or genomic regions. The development of densely populated genetic linkage maps,  marker assisted selection, expressed sequence tags, chromosome walking and gene cloning, have changed the scenario and it is now possible to transfer specific genes or loci to cultivated plants. In developed countries, like the United States, major efforts are underway to use these tools to mine, capture and transfer useful genes from exotic germplasm to crop plants (Tanskely and Nelson, 1996; Tanksley and McCouch, 1997). Also the completion of the Arabidopsis genome sequencing project will result in a number of new techniques (Sommerville and Dangi, 2000) that will enhance our understanding of genomes and, therefore, our ability to exploit exotic genetic resources. Not surprisingly increased research and gene discovery will correspondingly increase the value of exotic germplasm, meaning land races and wild ancestors of cultivated plants.

These are worthy goals but who will reap the benefits of increased utilization of exotic genetic resources? Everybody should benefit. Thus, the issues at stake are participation in gene discovery, ownership, and access. Countries rich in genetic resources are usually poorer in technological and scientific infrastructure (Africa and Latin America) and the opposite is true for the developed countries. Given this state of affairs, germplasm-rich developing countries must be prepared to become full partners as their genetic resources are explored for useful and commercially important genes.

How can a fair distribution of the benefits of gene discovery in exotic germplasm be accomplished?   There is no easy answer but some of the options are listed below.

A. International Treaties:  After seven years of difficult negotiations under the auspices of FAO, an International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture was developed.   A compromise deal was finally struck in November 2001 on the rules of the game for sharing, conserving and using the world's crop genetic resources. However, critics argue that this treaty left central issues unresolved and open to interpretation (Grain, 2001). The major problems with the treaty are:

1. Its core provisions on access and benefit sharing only apply to a short and specific list of crops leaving many others on hold.

2. It allows patenting of the seeds and other genetic materials so long as they are modified in some way.  This could mean restricted access unless those entitled to the germplasm get involved, and are either beneficiaries of the patents or have free and unrestricted access to the patents derived from their genetic materials.

3. The Treaty does not clearly establish rights for farmers and local communities to freely use, exchange and further develop the seeds they manage (and in many cases have helped develop). Legal and contractual restrictions imposed by corporations and intellectual property rights undermine the rights of  those who have played a key role in the evolution and maintenance of germplasm resources. It leaves the responsibility for implementing these rights to national governments; therefore it is important for scientists in developing countries to raise the consciousness of legislators and governments officials with respect to germplasm resources. Access by foreigners to these resources must be allowed and even encouraged provided that participation in gene discovery, access and ownership is granted. Given the current realities, genetic materials freely transferred to foreign entities in exchange for nothing must come to an end. According to the Treaty, benefits arising from commercial use of the genetic material covered by the Treaty must be shared. Companies that market products derived from such material are required to pay into a common fund. But the critical questions of how much, in what form, and under what conditions have not been settled (Grain, 2001). 

B. South-South International collaborations are needed in order to carry out gene-discovery research for which a critical mass of scientists, funding, and research capabilities are necessary.  Often the capabilities of a single developing country are not enough to compete with large corporations making it necessary to establish symbiotic research collaborations using already established networks, such as FAO´s REDBIO (http://www.rlc.fao.org/redes/redbio/html/home.htm), capable of coordinating and focusing the efforts of many laboratories.

C. Fellow scientists in developing countries must become more proactive. It is important for scientists to become familiar with and use intellectual property protection laws to their country's advantage, lobby for legislation that forbids the export of precious genetic materials with just compensation, and develop strategic alliances with foreign universities and corporations for research and development. National germplasm collections must be maintained and the intellectual property rights of indigenous people must be recognized and defended. Indigenous people have important knowledge about genetic resources and should be involved in research projects. Also, environmental degradation must be stopped for the sake of preserving genetic resources. These are difficult and complex propositions, however, a small Latin country has already shown the way. Costa Rica´s pioneering Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad (INBIo) is one model by which many of these goals can be reached. The institute promotes participatory research, educational biodiversity activities and looks for strategic collaborations with companies to obtain a fair retribution for genetic resources (http://www.inbio.ac.cr).


GRAIN Publications. A dissapointing compromise. Seedling, December 2001, vol. 18, no. 4.

HORSFALL, T.G. Genetic vulnerability of major crops.  National Academy of Sciences, 1972, Washingtong D.C.

LEE, Michael. Genome projects and gene pools: New germplasm for plant breeding?.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 1998, vol. 95, p. 2001-2004.

SOMMERVILLE, C. and DANGI, J. Plant Biology in 2010. Science, 2000, vol. 15, p. 2077-2079.

TANKSLEY, S.D. and MCCOUCH, S.R. Seed banks and molecular maps: unlocking genetic potential from the wild.  Science, 1997, vol. 277, p. 1063-1066.

TANKSLEY, S.D. and NELSON, J.C.  Advanced backcross QTL analysis:  a method for the simultaneous discovery and transfer of valuable QTLs from unadapted germplasm into elite breeding lines.  Theoretical and Applied Genetics, 1996, vol. 92, p. 191-203.

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