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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Yellowstone Bioprospecting

Air Date: Week of

Jyl Hoyt of member station KBSX reports on the controversy over the search for valuable genetic material in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park. Three groups successfully challenged a deal to allow what's known as "bioprospecting" in the park.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Biotechnology, the altering of genes to make organisms do what we want, is changing the face of medicine and agriculture. It's also posing environmental threats and raising profound ethical questions. Not surprisingly, our national parks are now on the frontiers of biotechnology. It turns out that these reserves of biological diversity are prime hunting grounds for those who are looking for unusual forms of DNA. In Yellowstone National Park, officials want to make a deal with profit-making corporations to allow them to extract genetic samples of microbes from the famous Yellowstone hot springs and geysers. In exchange, the park would get scientific services and a share of royalties from any commercial applications of the genes. But an outcry from opponents has so far blocked the plan. From member station KBSX in Boise, Idaho, Jyl Hoyt explains.

(Running spring)

HOYT: A teenager leans over a small gurgling creek in Yellowstone National Park and takes a whiff.

BOY: It smells (laughs) like rotten eggs. It's cool, though.

HOYT: Visitors aren't the only ones who think Yellowstone's world-famous hot springs and hissing, spouting geysers are cool. Scientists do, too. Like other visitors from around the world, they've been fascinated by the bizarre smells and colors of the thermal features for more than a century.

VARLEY: When scientists first started coming into Yellowstone in the late 1800s, they presumed that that was some kind of a mineralization that was going on. But we now know that each one of those colors is caused by a different species of microorganism.

HOYT: John Varley is Yellowstone's Resources Director. He says outside scientists have helped the Park Service understand the biology of the park's unique microbes, which thrive in boiling water. But the park has not benefitted from all discoveries. In the early 1980s, for instance, microbes taken from Yellowstone led researchers to the process of DNA fingerprinting. A Swiss company now earns millions of dollars a year from that discovery, but the park gets nothing. And John Varley says the extraction of genetic material, known as bioprospecting, is not unique to Yellowstone.

VARLEY: It's a problem throughout the National Park System. Goes on in the southwestern parks as it relates to their cacti and their flower blossoms. It goes on in the cave parks, because there's immense interest in the physiology of all of these blind cave organisms.

HOYT: It's all perfectly legal. Federal law allows scientists to sample tissue of plants and animals in the parks as long as they get a permit. But a few years ago, the Park Service began to look for ways to turn the process into a two-way street, and in 1997 Yellowstone struck a new kind of deal. In exchange for the right to sample the park's microbes, the San Diego-based biotechnology firm Diversa agreed to pay the park $100,000 and to share up to 10% of royalties from any products it develops from park organisms. The park also agreed to catalogue the DNA of local wildlife for the Park Service. Park officials say they hoped the deal would become a model for the entire park system, but it made some environmentalists angry.

BADER: We actively tell people in the parks that they're not allowed to pick flowers, they're not allowed to remove pine cones, you can take pictures and you can enjoy it but you can't leave with these things.

HOYT: Mike Bader used to work in the park. Now he's director of the Montana-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

BADER: And this is hard, as a former park ranger in Yellowstone, to rectify this disparity here, where we would write a ticket to somebody for removing a rock or a pine cone, but on the other hand we would allow a corporation to come in and remove life forms for commercial exploitation.

HOYT: The Alliance and two other environmental groups took the Park Service to court over the deal, which they say was struck largely behind closed doors. And this spring, a Federal judge voided the agreement. He ordered the Park Service to renegotiate it, following the terms of the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires broad public involvement and assessment of environmental impacts. Mike Bader says he hopes the court's action will keep Yellowstone from setting a very bad precedent.

BADER: We want to make sure that we're not going down a slippery slope here. And if we allow companies to come in and take aquatic organisms out of thermal pools, we may allow lumber companies to come in and cut trees later, because the same rationale might be used. That well, we're only cutting a few, we're really not going to harm the forest, none of the trees will go extinct, and we need the money.

HOYT: But bioprospectors say the process is very different from logging or mining. Jay Short, the CEO of Diversa Corporation, says at Yellowstone, it means analyzing only a few drops of water and then using the information to make artificial enzymes.

SHORT: And so, I think that's very different than commercializing materials such as grizzly bears and trees, where you're actually extracting the material and using that material and you have to go back and replenish. Whereas, you know, we need one sampling, and to have enough to study the information in that sample is teaspoon-sized.

VARLEY: What a bioprospector will take out in the course of a year, a trout fisherman can take out in one fish.

HOYT: Yellowstone's John Varley.

VARLEY: I just never heard anyone make a logical case that it could be harming anything.

(Footfalls through grass)

HOYT: At Angel Terraces, bubbling pools color the earth so vividly in hues of orange, brown, and peach, that jet pilots flying overhead can see them.

(Laughter and ambient conversation)

HOYT: The hot springs and geysers are part of what draws millions of visitors every year, and the park has been struggling under tight budgets to manage the crush of people. That's why some environmental groups were happy with the original Diversa deal. Tom Carnet is the President of the National Parks and Conservation Association.

CARNET: There has been a lot of exploitation in the past, and this is a step in the right direction by having some funds flow back to the parks.

HOYT: Ironically, the court order in the Diversa case did not affect the bioprospecting still being done under the old permit system. So, private scientists are still taking samples in the park. But Yellowstone is getting nothing in return. Still, park administrators say they are committed to working out new bioprospecting deals that do benefit the park.

(Running spring)

HOYT: As the afternoon sun turns Mammoth Hot Springs a golden hue, John Varley says bioprospecting contracts can turn the drive for private gain into public good.

VARLEY: The thing that I like about these agreements is that we might make capitalists into conservationists.

HOYT: Even though the deal has been voided for now, Diversa says it will still make its payments and continue its wildlife research for the park. Meanwhile, the Park Service is reviewing its system-wide policy on bioprospecting, and beginning an environmental review of the Diversa case: a process expected to take about two years. For Living on Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt in Yellowstone National Park.



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