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New study reveals how a single company has registered half of all existing patents associated with genes from marine species and that only 10 countries accounted for 98 percent of the patents. The authors see a need for greater transparency and equity of patent ownership and activities with respect to marine genetic resources and biodiversity.

Marine organisms have the ability to thrive in extremes of pressure, temperate, and chemistry; meaning their DNA could have important implications for humans, such as through biomedical and industrial applications.

However, ownership of associated patents linked to genetic material raises questions about equity and sustainability in working towards the Sustainable Development Goals. Not least, given the legal uncertainties associated with the use of genetic resources from areas beyond national jurisdiction, which cover half of the Earth’s surface.

In a study in Science Advances, a team led by Robert Blasiak, Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC), including GEDB researcherJean-Baptiste Jouffray and colleagues from SRC and University of British Columbia, examined who owns what in terms of marine genetic resources (MGR).

As Jouffray explains, “We investigate how many and what types of marine species are being included in patent claims, by whom, and when. Identifying the key actors registering patents involving MGRs is a critical step toward ensuring more equitable ocean stewardship, whether through regulation, voluntary industry action, or other mechanisms.”

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Who owns what?

To determine who owns what in terms of marine genetic diversity, the authors created a database, which identified 862 marine species, with a total of 12 998 genetic sequences that were patented under the Patent Cooperation Treaty. The species being patented ranged from sperm whales to microscopic archaea.

The authors found that 84% of the patents were registered by 221 companies, 12% were registered by universities, and the remaining 4% were registered government bodies or non-profit research institutes. 

However, German company BASF has registered 47% of all marine patent sequences, more than all of the other companies combined. As a keystone actor in MGRs, it is important to note that large corporations are known to acquire smaller companies for the primary purpose of claiming ownership of their patent portfolios, while also taking advantage of branches located in countries with weaker institutions and limited monitoring or enforcement capacity.

Equity and owning ocean biodiversity

In 2010, the Nagoya Protocol came into effect, and as co-author Henrik Österblom explains “Within national jurisdiction, the Nagoya Protocol protects countries from exploitative bioprospecting, and is meant to foster greater equity. But there’s a huge missing piece, because two-thirds of the ocean exists beyond national jurisdiction.”

The authors found that only 10 countries make up 98% of where the patents are registered, and the Nagoya Protocol does not apply retroactively, meaning that if another actor has already patented in a country’s jurisdiction, there will be few ways to ensure retroactive benefit sharing.

"Establishing a legal framework for marine genetic resources will be a core issue when international negotiations on a new UN treaty on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) begin in earnest in September 2018,” explains Robert Blasiak.

Cooperation for the ocean’s future

To ensure that MGRs are used and shared equitably and sustainably, the authors highlight that direct engagement is needed with keystone actors, such as BASF. For instance, voluntary environmental programmes, like the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, could create industry norms that encourage companies like BASF to commit to more transparency than what is currently required by government regulation.

Furthermore, the authors suggest that sustainable business practices and standards should be set up to encourage equitable and sustainable use. For instance, advocacy campaigns, changes in consumer and employee interest, engagement with the science community, and shareholder activism.

As a final point, lead author Robert Blasiak concludes that “Constructive cooperation among scientists, policymakers, and industry actors is needed to develop appropriate access and benefit-sharing mechanisms for MGRs that serve the triple purpose of encouraging innovation, fostering greater equity, and promoting better ocean stewardship.”

Read more 

Blasiak, R. J.-B. Jouffray, C. C. C. Wabnitz, E. Sundström, H. Österblom. 2018. Corporate control and global governance of marine genetic resources. Sci. Adv. 4, eaar5237 URL: