DAVIS, Calif. -- Five years after "Earth Summit" was convened in Rio de Janeiro to hammer out global development issues, the world's leaders are still arguing over how to share economic benefits from genetic resources between wealthy nations and the developing world.
While the politicians wrangle, a young molecular biologist at the University of California, Davis, has quietly offered up a modest solution to the problem.
Pamela Ronald, an assistant professor of plant pathology, has initiated a novel mechanism that pools university and industry resources to compensate nations for valuable genetic material. It is the first known attempt by a major research university to formally redress perceived inequities related to genetic material property rights.
For decades scientists have searched the jungles and forests of developing countries in hopes of finding plants and animals that might yield new information for basic research and have future commercial value. In many cases these have been wild plants carrying useful agricultural traits to be bred into their domesticated cousins.
In more recent years, with the growth of biotechnology, scientists also have become interested in cloning individual genes that produce beneficial traits such as disease- or pest-resistance when inserted into another plant.
As new laws evolved to allow protection of biotechnology inventions, research institutions were able to patent not only new plant varieties, but also novel genes. The rights to commercialize these genes now can be licensed to firms that are willing to invest in developing the genes into marketable products. While the research institution holding the patent and the firm commercializing the product may realize monetary returns from the gene, there are usually no benefits to the country from which the genetic material was initially gathered.