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DNA rip-off is patent folly

Julian Cribb 

September 13, 2006

The Australian

Australia is sitting back while others earn the intellectual property rights to its rich genetic inheritance IT'S happening again. Australian plants and animals are going offshore in droves, to be exploited by hi-tech nations across the world, while we sit around and watch.

It began a decade or so ago with New Zealand patenting the waratah, the Israelis cornering the world market for kangaroo paws, Chile shipping us eucalypt timber described as Chilean oak and the Finns exporting gum trees to Africa.

Today the Americans are working on the genetic sequences of the platypus and kangaroo and are poised to do coral, while the Japanese, Brazilians and South Africans are doing various eucalypts.

In the race to discover what's really in Australia, genetically speaking, the locals have largely been left on the starting blocks.

Or, to use a minerals analogy, our biological gold claim is being mined by others before we've even sunk our exploratory drill holes.

Technically, when the genome of an animal or plant is sequenced, the information is publicly available to all so that even if we can't be bothered to do it ourselves we may eventually take advantage of the work of others. But everyone knows that's not how the biodiscovery game really works. The cash rewards in the gene discovery race tend to go to those who are first past the post.

Effectively, this means that Australians will be buying back drugs, foods, even timber and other costly products made from our native plant and animal genes at inflated prices for generations to come.

There's an irony here. Universities and science agencies are being driven by governments to patent everything that moves. However, the vestigial funding for gene discovery in Australia also suggests these same governments don't much care if the intellectual property inherent in the genomes of Australia's unique plants, animals, insects, aquatic organisms and soil microbes is exploited by other countries first, at our expense.

It costs a lot of money to fully sequence a genome, tens of millions of dollars, in fact. But the process is getting faster and cheaper all the time, and the rewards are proportionately great. A single modest discovery can pay for the entire project. Another way to look at it is that it will cost us vastly more in the long run if others are first to capture the benefits of Australia's endemic gene pool.

One of the few examples of an Australian species being sequenced by Australians is the kangaroo (represented by the tammar wallaby) which is being partially sequenced by the US National Institutes of Health and the Australian Genome Research Facility Ltd. Even this project would not have happened had not the Victorian Government put up half the money.

The partners predict the tammar wallaby will yield insights applicable to human reproduction and development, evolution, anatomy and physiology of mammals and disease susceptibility. Commercially, it also promises a boost to dairy production and the potential for novel antibiotics. It sounds like a good deal.

Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, says that some sequencing has been done on a symbiotic dinoflagellate that lives with coral: "Our minds were blown by what's in the genome. There appears to be a fifth nucleotide. It's like an alien from another planet," he says. "By studying it we hope to expose the achilles heel of the Great Barrier Reef under global warming, as well as making many useful biotech discoveries."

But sequencing corals - with their massive genomes 10 times as big as those of humans - lies far beyond present Australian resources or priorities. It will soon be done by the Americans, who will thus corner the market in anything found in this marine gold rush.

Yet even the corals do not contain as much genetic wealth as the vast and still largely unidentified insect and soil biota that inhabits Australia. Despite its enormous size, significance for our ability to live here long term and commercial promise, this lies far from the sun of national or state science priorities.

If we want to learn how to live sustainably in Australia, we need to understand how the organisms that have done so for eons have achieved it. The secret is written in their genes. Only by understanding those genes and what they express will it be revealed. This is knowledge for all time. It does not date, unlike the latest computer chip. It is of value for the rest of Australian history. It is foundation material for the knowledge infrastructure of this land and its people.

Yet it also offers rapid returns on investment. The unique genes in some of our more unusual organisms promise health, food and industrial products far beyond our present imagining, especially in a world that will increasingly need things able to withstand harsh and erratic climatic conditions. These things are Australian and should be gathered by Australians first.

If we don't harvest our own crop, someone else will do it for us. And, in the long run, we will pay them royally for having done so, and be the poorer for it.

Julian Cribb is adjunct professor of science communication at the University of Technology, Sydney. He edits Australian R&D Review and

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