The Smithsonian steps on the ants

Iconic museum files patent claim on fungi to control leafcutter ants—a well-known fact

By Latha Jishnu
Published: Wednesday 31 October 2012

antsSometimes, the nicest of people do pretty unpleasant things. So uncharacteristic at times that you are forever left wondering why. Right now I am puzzled why an august institution such as the Smithsonian in Washington DC, over 160 years old and unique for its spread—it has a clutch of 19 museums, nine research centres and a zoo—and its special curating reputation should be engaged in misappropriation of knowledge. Daylight biopiracy, in fact.

The Smithsonian has filed a patent claim at the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for a method of biological control of ant colonies. Based on its own research in Panama and that of several others, the institution has sought to make a naturally occurring parasitic fungus Escovopsis its own and staked claim over its use as a biological control agent for the leafcutter ant species found in the tropical and warm temperate climates of the Americas.

Now, a small lesson in biology is in order to explain the importance of Escovopsis and why critics have slammed the Smithsonian’s audacious patent claim. Leafcutter ants are the stuff of popular TV programmes on nature’s wonders. They trim foliage from green plants, harvesting leaves in small sections and carry the leaves back to their elaborate colonies in perfect lines, embodying at once the fascinating life of tropical forests and the sophistication of some species. The bits of leaf are taken to colony chambers where the ants use it as a substrate on which they produce a particular species of fungus, Leucoagaricus gongylophorus, which is their primary food. Without this fungus ant colonies perish and this happens through the parasitic Escovopsis fungus that specialises in attacking Leucoagaricus.

What is germane to this story is that leafcutters are considered agricultural pests because they can destroy row crops and others such as citrus, cassava and coffee. Ergo, the need to control these pests which can be a problem for monoculture farming and in disturbed ecosystems. While some farmers use chemical insecticides, others resort to burning ant colonies. Enter the Smithsonian Institution which, despite much older research in several South America nations, both in laboratories and on field, has claimed the use of Escovopsis to control leafcutter ant colonies as its own invention. Its USPTO claim filed in September 2011 further claims that use of two other fungal genera, Trichoderma and Acromonium, to control leafcutters are its patentable idea, too. Its international claim filed in April 2012 stakes ownership of any strain of the three fungi used as a biological control against any of the 47 known species of leafcutter ants. This includes fungal spores mixed in different ratios with inert carriers such as wheat flour.

I am indebted to research consultant Edward Hammond for the intricacies of this claim which he describes as “bold, broad and bogus”. From his perch in Austin, Texas, where he directs a research and writing consultancy appropriately named Prickly Research, Hammond specialises in uncovering cases of biopiracy across the world primarily by companies and universities in the US. At the July meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Nagoya Protocol of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Delhi, Hammond had dilated on several cases of biopiracy where patents had been filed on the genetic resources of Latin American and Asian countries, India included (see ‘The Avon Lady lifts our biodiversity’, Down To Earth, July 31, 2012). His research is meticulous.

The Smithsonian move is clearly distressing for those familiar with its history. “Claims that these previously described ideas are a new ‘invention’ would be an embarrassment to any reputable scientific institution. They should be acutely embarrassing, however, to one with the posturing of the Smithsonian,” writes Hammond in a briefing paper that has been presented on the sidelines of the 11th conference of parties to CBD currently under way in Hyderabad. “Rather than a scientific honour roll, in view of the mendacity of the patent application, the Smithsonian might instead appear in a biopirate’s hall of shame,” he says.

Hammond’s contention is that the institution’s so-called invention was described years ago in papers by Latin American scientists from several countries, and that the Smithsonian’s “inventors” were aware of this. A shocking revelation is that one of them was even a reviewer of a Brazilian paper that describes the “invention”. That paper was published four years before the patent claim was filed.

Perhaps, more disquieting is what is happening in Panama where the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute runs a research programme with the nation’s International Cooperative Biodiversity Group which is keen to commercialise its genetic resources in order to reap the benefits of benefit- sharing under the Nagoya Protocol. Interestingly, the Smithsonian is part of the Global Environmental Facility’s first project to implement the protocol. Should the Panamanians be worrying?

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