Hardy wild bacteria attract firms' interest
By PAUL ELIAS
The Associated Press
PALO ALTO, Calif. The creatures are known as "extremophiles,"
and they earn the name: They live in toxic Superfund cleanup sites,
boiling deep-sea rift vents, volcanic craters and polar glaciers
some of the planet's harshest environments.
These single-celled creatures owe their hardiness to genes, and that has
drawn the attention of a few biotech companies. The companies train the
genes to mass produce industrial-strength enzymes for such products as
better detergents, cleaner chemicals and more effective DNA fingerprints.
Such "bio-prospecting" efforts have huge potential for good. They just
might make hazardous-waste cleanup more affordable, reduce pollution and
make better medicines if the microbes' genetic durability can be
exploited and controlled.
But tough questions are being raised as well about the morality
of allowing private companies to patent and profit from Mother Nature.
The extremophile candidates are numerous. There's Deinoccus radiodurans,
dubbed Conan the Bacterium by its legions of fans because it withstands
10,000 times the amount of radiation that would kill a human. Found on
radiated food, it has a unique ability to repair broken DNA.
In Chile's moonlike Atacama desert one of Earth's driest spots
lives another extremophile that scientists say could give them
clues to what life might look like on Mars.
And the Pentagon's research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects
Agency, is sponsoring experiments on genetically engineering
extremophiles to extend the shelf life of blood-clotting platelets in
extreme conditions. The idea is to help treat battlefield wounds.
Objections to such work often come from activists who complain that
Third World countries aren't properly compensated for microbes extracted
from their deserts, mountains and seashores.
"The concern with bio-prospecting is that the people who consider
themselves to be the stewards of the biodiversity in a region often
aren't consulted or are ignored," said Beth Burrows of the Edmonds
Institute, an environmental nonprofit based in Edmonds.
Native Hawaiians are angry over a deal between the University of Hawaii
and a biotechnology company to share in potential profits gleaned from
lava sludge. Now the Hawaii Legislature is considering a moratorium on
the transfer or sale of extremophiles found on public lands so
environmental and profit-sharing issues can be worked out.
Antarctica is governed by an international treaty that vows to keep the
continent open and free to scientists dedicated to peaceful pursuits. But
some 92 patents have been filed in the United States and another 62 in
Europe that claim ownership of biological property found there.
While such patent applications appear to be legal, "some scientists
active in Antarctica worry about whether outright commercial exploitation
and patents are within the spirit of the treaty," said Sam Johnston, who
co-wrote a report on the subject for the United Nations this year.
The Edmonds Institute sued the National Park Service in 1997 after it
gave San Diego-based Diversa commercial rights to prospect for
extremophiles in the fabled hot springs of Yellowstone National Park. The
prospecting, involving fees and royalties paid to the government, was
ultimately approved by a judge on the condition that an extensive
environmental review be completed.
The park service has defended the deal which remains on hold
pending the review as a way for it to profit on scientific
research without disrupting the park's environment. Four decades ago, the
park service wasn't so financially savvy when a University of Wisconsin
researcher discovered the extremophile Thermus aquaticus in a Yellowstone
Today, that bacterium provides a key enzyme polymerase
used for polymerase chain reaction, better known as PCR, which is used
widely by crime labs, hospitals and university researchers.
Yellowstone doesn't receive any income from sales of the PCR enzyme, now
a key tool in the $300 million-a-year DNA fingerprinting business.
The companies involved say that without the ability to patent
extremophiles, they can't make good on the many promises of this area of
David Estell, a researcher at Genencor International, said
bio-prospecting requires the collecting of just a few samples, which
hardly disturbs the environment.
Genencor is one of the few profitable biotechnology companies in
existence, with $13 million in first-quarter profit on $94 million in
Genencor has the genetic material of 15,000 strains of microbes stored
in deep-freeze in Palo Alto and the Netherlands. It already has 11
industrial products on the market, and it is using living material
enzymes and proteins, rather than fossil fuels to develop cleaner
and cheaper ways of making industrial chemicals.
For instance, Genencor takes a gene that gives a microbe alkaline
resistance and uses it to create enzymes for laundry detergent. One
enzyme is used in Tide detergent, another is used to give jeans a faded
Both are produced by extremophiles found thriving in highly alkaline
lakes in East Africa and Kenya. The extremophile genes responsible for
making these enzymes are genetically engineered into commonplace
bacteria, which are then coaxed to grow by the trillions in giant
brewers' vats at Genencor's nine factories around the world.
"The goal," Estell said, "is make proteins do something they've never