My genes on your Internet

There's nothing virtual about the gene rush

Published: Wednesday 15 December 2004

-- bio-prospecting is apt to wear an innocuous faade. One might see, while travelling to Rudraprayag in the Uttaranchal Himalaya, a man on the hillside leisurely swishing a butterfly net. Or, there might occur an 'anthropological dialogue' between an intense researcher and a village healer. Sometimes, universities--usually located in the West--fund 'knowledge trips' to the South Pacific Islands, or the Brazilian Amazon. But the intention behind this multidisciplinary science of random sampling--it encompasses anthropology, biotechnology, cell genome research, tropical medicine, quixotic theory, secretive practice -- is hard as steel: get back that unique, hitherto unknown, chemical. Sell it.

But every so often, the crudity that underpins this hunt-and-sale phenomenon comes to the fore. Every so often, this wedding of science to the market--positivism to profit, for 'mutual procreative gain'--appears unmasked, as in the sale of blood samples of Brazil's Karitiana and Surui communities, for as little as us$85 per sample (see: Outrageous).

The vendor: The Coriell Institute, New Jersey, usa. It is the world's largest repository of human cell culture. It is protected by us law, which allows sale of genetic material for 'research'. To peddle its wares, it has used the most far-reaching bazaar, the Internet.

An unbeatable combination. It doesn't matter a jot that the un has mooted a declaration on indigenous rights (but this, too, has been blocked: see: UK plays spoilsport). The Convention on Biodiversity--deliberating on access to genetic resources and benefit-sharing--cannot, as of now, extend its regulatory sway over such activity. So what if the World Intellectual Property Organization has a mandate to negotiate a framework to protect genetic resources, traditional knowledge and folk-lore? Coriell--and other such genetic hard-sellers--are least bothered. It seems indigenous communities exist only to be poached upon.

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