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

May 13, 1994

Air Date: May 13, 1994


Who Owns Life? / Bob Carty

Bob Carty of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports on the ethical issues surrounding the extraction of genes from indigenous peoples and attempts to patent and sell the genetic material. Native activists say the practice is exploitative, while the US government and industry say this kind of genetic prospecting could benefit all people by helping to find a cure for diseases such as cancer and AIDS. (12:50)

Life at 150 Feet

Host Steve Curwood talks to biologist and photographer Mark Moffett about his work documenting previously unknown species in the tropical rainforest canopy. Moffett's experiences and photographs are contained in his new book, The High Frontier. (06:14)

Our Listeners Weigh In

Listeners respond to recent features on the debates over saltwater fishing and chlorine. (02:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1994 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Dale Willman, Karen Boothe, Bob Carty
GUEST: Mark Moffett

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Who owns human life? Critics say US officials are unfairly and unethically patenting the genes of Third World peoples.

MOONEY: How is it that someone who is the head of a major government department in the United States, on behalf of the United States, is claiming the human cell line of not just an indigenous person but a citizen of a foreign country?

CURWOOD: Also, we meet a botanist and photographer who's cataloguing the great diversity in the treetops of the tropical rainforest.

MOFFETT: A tree can contain several hundred species of plants growing on its crown, and each of those types of plants can have various other plants and animals associated with it. So you have a world within a world phenomenon.

CURWOOD: And your comments this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news. Most US residents have potentially harmful amounts of dioxin in their bodies. A draft report by the Environmental Protection Agency says the levels of dioxin found in most US citizens have been known to disrupt fetal development and immune systems in laboratory animals. A full study is slated for release this summer, but a summary has been distributed to Federal agencies for discussion. Greenpeace says the findings point to a public health emergency from dioxin, and has called for a ban on further discharges of the chlorine-based chemical. The Chemical Manufacturers Association says dioxin exposure does need to be reduced, but that there is no cause for alarm.

For the first time the US Government is trying to include environmental factors into an analysis of the nation's economic health. From Washington, NPR's Dale Willman explains.

WILLMAN: Economists and environmentalists have been discussing the possibility of assessing the economic impact of natural resource use for at least 20 years. But it took a push from President Clinton to get the Commerce Department working on ways to calculate such an impact. The Department has come up with a 3-step plan. Step 1 looks at the value of depletable resources.

CARSON: We're looking at how the economy interacts with mineral resources. How the economy uses those resources.

WILLMAN: That's Dr. Carol Carson of the Commerce Department. She says the figures show that proven oil and mineral reserves could add as much as 3 to 7% of the nation's business assets. That would give just a slight boost to the GDP if it were included in the total. In the future, Commerce hopes to add the value of newly-discovered reserves and subtract the value of those that are used up. Commerce also hopes to move on to the next two steps, which include adding renewable resources to the mix, and then, finally, placing the value on intangibles such as clean air. That's considered the toughest of all. Given the total size of the US economy, most analysts say the impact of such accounting would be slight. Joel is a Senior Fellow at Resources for the Future in Washington, DC.

DARMSTEADER: Even after we make all the appropriate corrections and adjustments in bringing our, or developing our GDP along quote "greener" unquote lines, it probably will have a relatively small proportionate effect on the aggregate value of Gross Domestic Product in the United States.

WILLMAN: Darmsteader says this type of environmental accounting is more important for those countries whose economy relies more heavily on natural resources. For Living on Earth, this is Dale Willman in Washington.

NUNLEY: A landmark EPA study on second-hand smoke has been challenged by a research arm of Congress. Scientists for the Congressional Research Service told a Senate committee that the EPA evaluation of the hazards of second-hand smoke was flawed, and that cancer risks could be far smaller than EPA estimates, perhaps even zero. Last year the EPA found that second-hand smoke causes thousands of lung cancer deaths every year. An agency spokesperson says the EPA stands by the findings, which have spawned a host of anti-smoking efforts. This is Living on Earth.

The Interior Department will go back to court to keep the California gnat catcher on the threatened species list. A recent court ruling threw out the listing of the bird on a technicality. Interior officials say that jeopardizes experiments in controlled development in the gnat catcher's southern California habitat. The Department wants the region to be a showplace for its ecosystem-wide management program. Interior officials will ask US judge Stanley Sporkin to restore the songbird to the protected list, while the Agency irons out problems with listing procedures.

A St. Louis mechanic is the first person to be prosecuted under a Federal statute designed to protect the Earth's ozone layer. The Missouri garage owner pleaded guilty to servicing the air conditioner of an unmarked state police car without the proper equipment. Under new Clean Air Act regulations, all repair shops must recapture and recycle the chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, used as refrigerants. The St. Louis man faces up to 5 years in prison and a quarter of a million dollar fine.

Basketball players beware: your sneakers could be hazardous to the environment. Minnesota is the first state to ban 2 types of basketball shoes with blinking lights in the heels. The state says mercury in the switches that control the lights could pose problems when the shoes are thrown away. Minnesota Public Radio's Karen Boothe has more.

BOOTHE: Minnesota is known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes. State lawmakers fear that if too many toxic shoes wind up in garbage incinerators and landfills, mercury in their little light switches could leak into the environment and contaminate the waters. The new law prohibits retailers from selling such shoes, and they face a $700 fine per pair if caught. But what about the shoes already lighting the feet of Minnesotans? State officials are relying on people to turn them in to authorities, who will dispose of them properly. But if they don't, one lawmaker says, quote, "We're not going to have any garbage police running out to peek in everyone's trash, looking for the pair that got away." For Living on Earth, I'm Karen Boothe in Minnesota.

NUNLEY: That's this week's environmental news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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(Theme music up and under)

Who Owns Life?

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. As humans, we are all united by a common genetic heritage. But each of us has our own unique variation of genes which determines everything from our hair color to our resistance to diseases. These small differences are key clues in the search for cures for a whole range of diseases, from cancers to AIDS. This quest has led researchers to all corners of the Earth to gather genetic samples from isolated peoples. But it's also led to ethical dilemmas. Recently, for instance, US Government scientists took blood samples from remote Panamanian Indians, and, without their knowledge, brought the cells back to the US to copy them, patent them, and put them up for sale. Biotechnology researchers say with proper safeguards, this kind of genetic prospecting can be acceptable. But some native groups have called it biological piracy. Bob Carty of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has our report.

(Laboratory floor sounds, described below)

CARTY: In a large basement room in Rockville, Maryland, white vapor hisses from hoses as they charge 8 steel tanks with liquid nitrogen. Inside the tanks, at 211 degrees below zero, are tiny glass vials, one and a half million of them. Each vial contains a little piece of life: of bacteria, viruses, fungi, plants, animals, and human beings. This is the American Type Culture Collection, or ATCC. The ATCC is a complex of 3 buildings with heavy security doors. Inside, the atmosphere is a curious mix between a library and a distribution warehouse. The ATCC does a bit of both. In part it's a cell library, where scientists deposit genetic material as a requirement of the patent process. The ATCC also sells cloned samples of that material to other researchers. The ATCC even has a catalogue on computer disk. That's how a Canadian researcher first came across evidence of genetic prospecting. The researcher was Pat Mooney, the director of a biodiversity research organization called The Rural Advancement Foundation International. One day last summer, Pat Mooney was browsing through the ATCC catalogue on his home computer in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He was hoping to find something about seeds in Asia, but he stumbled on something else.

(Computer keyboard action)

MOONEY: I was really trying to track something down related to India, so I typed in "India" and was trying to do a word search through it that way. And suddenly on my screen, one of the options that popped up was Guaymi Indian Woman from Panama. Which was not what I was looking for. As I read through it, I could see that they were saying that they had the human cell line and that for the low, low sum of $127 I could have my own Guaymi Indian Woman from Panama in my own little test tube. I didn't know what to say; I was stunned. To me it was just an incredible though that you could do something like that.

CARTY: At the time, Pat Mooney didn't know what to do with that odd piece of information. But a couple of weeks later, he was looking at a different computerized database, one that lists applications for patents in Europe. On a whim, he typed in the word "Guaymi."

(Computer keyboard being typed)

MOONEY: And suddenly there she was on the screen. The patent application. The title of the patent was Guaymi Indians from Panama. that was part of the actual title of the claim. And the assignee - and to me the most astonishing aspect of all of this was that the assignee for this patent, the one who was applying for the patent, was the Secretary of the Department of Commerce of the United States Government. And how is it that someone who is the head of a major government department of the United States, on behalf of the United States, is claiming the human cell line of not just an indigenous person but the citizen of a foreign country?

CARTY: The foreign country was Panama, where in the western rainforests 124,000 Guaymi native people live. It all goes back to the 1980s, when the genetic revolution was taking off. Scientists became interested in aboriginal people because, as isolated populations, they might have a few unique genes or cells. And such cells or genes could make drugs that could be worth billions. Researchers had already discovered something special about the Guaymi. Many of them carried a kind of retro-virus which, at the time, was thought to be associated with the viruses that cause leukemia and AIDS. In 1990 some American doctors went to the jungles of western Panama. They took blood samples, including one from a 26-year-old Guaymi mother of 2. The researchers say they do not know her name. Back in the United States, they took one of the woman's cells and cloned it, duplicated it hundreds of times. That's called a cell line, and the US Department of Commerce put a patent claim on it. One of the researchers was Dr. Jonathan Kaplan from the US Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

KAPLAN: When you work for the Government, the Government encourages people who develop things like that to apply for a patent. If there is money to be made, the vast majority of it comes right back to the Government. There was really no thinking about individual motives or profits.

CARTY: Dr. Kaplan's motives may not have been financial, but the US Government clearly considered the Guaymi cells of potential value: a possible windfall for the Government itself, or something it could sell to private biotech companies. Meanwhile, Pat Mooney, the Winnipeg researcher, had established contact with leaders of the Guaymi people. They were shocked when he told them they were being used as genetic raw material. From Panama City, I reached Jose Acosta, a Guaymi and a consultant to the Guaymi National Congress.

ACOSTA: (Speaking in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: When the Spanish arrived in 1492, they took away our gold. When the countries of Latin America became independent, they stole our land. Today, the same thing is happening. They want to take our cells. The exploitation is still going on.

CARTY: What most outraged the Guaymi was that they were never consulted. The researchers claim that they did tell the Guaymi, in general, that they were the subject of medical studies. But there is an obvious pitfall here. Many Guaymi are illiterate. Many don't even speak Spanish. And in their language, there's no word for "genetics." Dr. Jonathan Kaplan concedes that the Guaymi were not given the full picture.

KAPLAN: I think most people wouldn't understand all the details of all the laboratory work that was being done. So in terms of specifically notifying the Guaymi that a patent application was being put forth, I don't believe that was done. But again, mainly because I don't think anyone felt it was really necessary. No one was trying to dishonor them or to take anything from them in any way.

CARTY: But the Guaymi say something was taken from them. Whether well-intentioned or not, they call it theft. They say that if their bodies contain something that can benefit humanity, they are not against sharing it. But they want to have control over the disposition of their genes. And they resent scientists who are willing to spend so much money to preserve the Guaymi and their genetic history in a test tube, while there are so few resources to help the Guaymi survive as a people. Guaymi spokesperson Jose Acosta.

ACOSTA: (Speaking in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: We are not opposed to sharing with humanity. We oppose being exploited where our poverty is not resolved. We have looked into this biotechnology work. To process a sample, the cost per person is $2,300, while the rural [word?] salary of a Guaymi is less than $80 a year.

CARTY: The Guaymi sent letters to the US Government demanding the patent application be dropped. With the help of Pat Mooney's organization, they took the issue to the United Nations. Then, last November, the US Government withdrew its patent application. Officials contend it was not because of the protests. They say there was just not enough commercial interest in the cell line to continue the patent process. That may be true. But it suggests that if the Guaymi woman had something more valuable in her cells, the US Government would still be trying to slap a patent on them. The US Government still claims ownership of the cell line. It won't be returned to Panama, as the Guaymi have requested. It's still for sale at the American Type Culture Collection.

(Tanks being charged with liquid nitrogen)

CARTY: Human material is one of the fastest-growing collections at the ATCC. And this is just one of hundreds of cell libraries around the world. Many are private and restricted. Pat Mooney contends that private biotech companies are engaged in a gold rush for genes that researchers have yet to uncover.

MOONEY: What we've seen in Panama was the beginning of this. Just the tip of the iceberg. There's a collection of human cell lines going down along the Nile River as we speak. There's collecting going on in Colombia; there's collecting going on in the South Pacific; in Italy. All around the world. We've discovered 2 more examples of patent claims by the US Government again, against the lives, the human cell lines of people in Papua, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. This is bio-piracy.

CARTY: And it's not just an issue for the Third World. A Swedish pharmaceutical company recently secured a patent on a gene from the people of an isolated village in Italy. The company may soon be marketing drugs from the gene to treat heart disease. Meanwhile, native groups in Canada and Australia have joined those in Latin America in calling for a halt to gene prospecting. For the biotechnology companies, that's an alarming prospect. Charles Ludlum is Vice President of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a Washington lobby. Ludlum agrees that gene research should be conducted with prior, informed consent. But he argues that patenting other people's genes and cells is necessary to compensate the biotech industry for its costly investments. He doesn't believe genetic prospecting is unethical.

LUDLUM: I don't think there is any ethical question involved with trying to create medicines that help human beings to avoid suffering and to avoid death. I think we need to go wherever medical knowledge can be found; and if we find that there is an aboriginal group in one country that has a special propensity to have a disease, or a special immunity to a disease, then I hope that they would be willing to share that with the rest of the world so that all of us can benefit.

CARTY: But biotechnology critics don't trust the industry. Andrew Kimbrell is the author of The Human Body Shop: The Engineering and Marketing of Life. He argues that to control and regulate gene research and patenting, we need new international treaties. Such treaties might guarantee indigenous groups a share in the commercial returns from their genes. Kimbrell maintains that genes should not be private property, but rather a public heritage for all humanity.

KIMBRELL: The genes of our bodies, the genes of the animals and plants of the world, do not belong to a few major multinational corporations. They're something we all should share in. I think what we are seeing, increasingly around the world, is an enclosure of the genetic commons; and we're in an extraordinary situation where I think in a very short time, we're going to see all of the 100,000 or more human genes owned by a few companies.

(Cell vials being scattered)

CARTY: At the ATCC cell library in Rockville, Maryland, a worker is counting out tiny glass vials, packaging them up for sale: little pieces of the living world. And ever more frequently, little pieces of ourselves. There are almost no rules to govern this new commerce in the little parts of us. Governments and the international community are just starting to debate the issue. Back in Winnipeg, Pat Mooney insists there is a fundamental, or if you want a philosophical, question our society has yet to grapple with.

MOONEY: This is a new world. Patents were meant for sewing machines; now they're being applied to Guaymi people in Panama. We have a new kind of an industry out there. We no longer have a food industry or a pharmaceutical industry or a chemicals industry per se; we really have a life industry. And the thought that someone could have exclusive monopoly control for 17 years over the products, the processes, and in fact even the formula of life, is a scary thought. The fundamental question is who owns life?

CARTY: For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: We'd like to know what you think. Should governments or companies or anyone be allowed to patent the human cell? Or should our genes be common property? Call us right now at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988.

Life at 150 Feet

CURWOOD: The search for genetic diversity isn't always fraught with ethical pitfalls. In fact, when you're stretching to get a close-up shot of an unknown species of worm or frog or flower, while hanging in a tree 150 feet off the ground, you're more likely to worry about more literal types of falls. But if you want to reach one of the last and greatest frontiers of ecology, the canopies of the tropical rainforests are the place to be. Thousands of plants and animals live there, never descending to the forest floor. There may be no better chronicler of these species, and the daredevil researchers who study them, than Mark Moffett, a Harvard biologist and a photographer for the National Geographic, whose new book, The High Frontier, includes some frankly amazing photographs. Moffett is also an expert climber. But he says moving up through the trees can still be unsettling.

MOFFETT: It's certainly a weird experience. It's not like climbing a rock face on a mountain. You've got every layer moving independently, as the various currents move the foliage back and forth. And there's this sense of instability: nothing is steady. And there's also all the layering. It's very hard to tell how high you are.

CURWOOD: The canopy is just teeming with life. Why is that?

MOFFETT: Certainly, just the complexity of the environment, just the labyrinth that this vegetation forms, and the opportunities for different critters to find hiding places, both in the leaves and in the bark and in the trunks of trees, and among the plants up there. A tree can contain several hundred species of plants growing on its crown, and each of those types of plants can have various other plants and animals associated with it, so you have a world within a world phenomenon. And there's just all sorts of opportunities for very complex life cycles and species relationships.

CURWOOD: Can you tell us about an adventure or a misadventure you've had in the canopy?

MOFFETT: Well, I've had face-to-face close calls with things like bears. I was in Colombia photographing spectacle bears, which are the world's only real canopy bear. And I was photographing a mother and her cub, and climbed up in the trees to get a good picture of the mother. And I wasn't watching, but the cub looped around and climbed up my tree; I only noticed this when the branch began to make this horrible creaking sound and I started to bend. Didn't know what to do because it's an endangered species, and I couldn't kick it. And so I sort of wiggled my foot in its direction, and that caused the mother to let out a terrible roar. And fortunately the cub was more terrified by mom than I was, and scrambled down the tree very quickly and they both jumped off across the ground and left me alone.

CURWOOD: Have you ever noticed something about the canopy through the lens of the camera that you hadn't seen before as a scientist?

MOFFETT: Oh, well yes. There's actually a picture in my book of a couple ants called dacoton carrying a caterpillar.

CURWOOD: Where's the picture here in your book?

MOFFETT: What have we got here? Yeah, it's the picture on page 111.

CURWOOD: Could you describe what's going on here?

MOFFETT: Well in this case there are 2 ants that, they're called dacoton armagyron; they're very lumpy-looking ants. And they've killed a caterpillar. They're kind of dumb ants, though; they have a lot of trouble working together to do things. And these 2 ants are trying to help each other carry the caterpillar back to the nest, but they've been so bad at it they've virtually torn the caterpillar apart. And I was just photographing the caterpillar and I get the pictures back and I notice, in the frame, a little fly that was bombarding them. And I hadn't seen it at the time. And it turns out that this is a type of fly that's, that will sneak in and try to eat some of their food, some of the caterpillar. So I went back and got even better pictures of this fly afterwards; but I hadn't even known about it.

CURWOOD: Can you tell me about any unusual plants you found in the canopy?

MOFFETT: Well, plants in the canopy are sometimes not what they seem. There are a number of species that are quite unusual. For instance, philodendrons and monstras are actually dendostaphos plants and these things are everyday plants to us. Yet if you go down to the tropical rainforest you find they're quite bizarre. They're actually very animal-like. They start off on the ground and start growing up the tree trunk, but they eventually lose their stem to earth. And then they remain a yard or two long, and they roam through the trees looking and acting much like a slow-motion snake in search of a place to bask. So you can have one speed up when it's in shadow and then it slows down when it's in a nice, sunny spot.

CURWOOD: What would you like a reader to take away from your book here?

MOFFETT: Ultimately, it's a sense of wonder about rainforests, because I think all too often recently there's too much information on the destruction of rainforests. And people are turned off by it. And I think they have to be reminded again about why one should save rainforests. And to understand the rainforests a little better will help, I think, that way. And to really, the thing I'd hope people would see here is that science doesn't need to be boring. Essentially, adventure can occur to any scientist anywhere; you don't have to be up in a tree. It can be in your back yard. The sheer excitement of a place and the creatures in it, and how they interact, is something that I'm trying to show again and again in the book.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us. Mark Moffett is an entomologist and photographer. His new book, published by Harvard University Press, is called The High Frontier: Exploring the Tropical Rainforest Canopy. Thanks for joining us.

MOFFETT: Thanks, Steve.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Our Listeners Weigh In

CURWOOD: Now it's time to hear from you, our listeners. We recently reported on efforts to rewrite the law governing commercial fishing in the US waters. Among the proposals were a plan to charge boat operators a fee based on the amount of fish they catch.

CALLER: This is Kat Shimway from Meridian, Idaho. I strongly support saltwater fishermen paying for the privilege of fishing. I believe that everyone should pay for any of the commons. The monies collected from these fees should be used to manage our depletable resources. This not only would help create sustainable resources, but also would create economically viable industries for all future generations to come.

CALLER: My name is Mark Buckley; I'm calling from Kodiak, Alaska. I am a commercial fisherman and have been involved with the commercial fishing industry since 1972. You didn't address anywhere in your story the amount of taxes and amount of fees that I already pay to the governments, state and Federal, to participate in the fishery. I wouldn't mind paying for a share of the catch as a stumpage fee, if these other fees were to be reduced commensurately.

CALLER: This is Edith Chase calling from Kendall, Ohio. Regarding your question - should EPA study chlorine use? - my answer would be yes. We can no longer try to test 10,000 organochloride compounds one at a time. We need to evaluate them as a class and work for virtual elimination of persistent toxic chemicals. We should also plan the transition for workers.

CALLER: This is Bill Bacam from Hartville, Ohio; I listen to WKSU out of Kent. I'm a farmer in this area. If we do away with everything that is possibly harmful with us, more will probably starve to death. And it's a choice that people are going to have to realize they're going to have to make. It's pretty easy to live now, in this country especially. And there's a lot of things that we take for granted. And you can't have your cake and eat it, too.

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CURWOOD: You can call us at 1-800-218-9988. Or you can write to us at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. That's Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Transcripts and tapes are available for $10.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. The coordinating producer is George Homsy, our director is Deborah Stavro, our associate producer is Kim Motylewski. Our production team includes Chris Page, Eve Stewart, Colleen Singer Coxe, Jessika Bella Mura, and engineer Laurie Azaria. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

ANNOUNCER: Major contributors to Living on Earth include all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt - whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; W. Alton Jones Foundation; the National Science Foundation; and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Additional support is provided by the Jessie B. Cox Foundation.

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The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, although the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid transmission and distribution deadlines, it has not yet been proofread against tape.


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