Trail of a $500 m gene

How a rare African algae collected by a French academic turns into a commercial bonanza for an equity firm in Hong Kong. Are there any benefits for Côte d’Ivoire which provided it?

By Latha Jishnu
Published: Friday 15 November 2013

imageFour years ago, Australian scientists succeeded in isolating a gene from a lesser known strain of algae that could convert carbon dioxide into high-grade fuel. It was a breakthrough with tremendous commercial potential and the researchers were, naturally, elated, specially since it brought with it the promise of sustainable clean fuel. Fuel derived from algae, which are tiny plants that live in water, is considered the Holy Grail of alternative energy, because if commercial scale biofuel can be extracted from it the world will find a sustainable source of energy. A vast number of research projects and commercial enterprise are under way in the race to exploit this natural resource, a major plus point being that it does not have to compete with food crops.

The discovery brings together issues related to the patenting of biological diversity, climate change considerations and hope of a cleaner fuel—and overall, the question of who owns the algae and, therefore, the gene that was isolated from it. Big money is involved in this case. One report puts the value of the patent at over US $500 million.

The breakthrough was made by a team at Flinders University, Adelaide, led by environmental biotechnologist Andy Ball who is also professor at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). The algae, a strain of Botryococcus braunii, will not be used in the production of commercial biofuel because it grows too slowly, but its gene will be genetically engineered into other microorganisms to produce biofuels much more efficiently than present technologies.

In 2010, Business Times of Singapore had quoted an official of World Wide Carbon Credits (WWCC), the equity firm that funded the research, as saying that one tonne of oil produced by the algae absorbs five tonnes of carbon dioxide and releases 3.5 tonnes of oxygen—a blockbuster of an environment- friendly discovery.

Now patent applications are being filed worldwide from China to Mexico—the US has already granted the patent—by WWCC. Ball is listed as the inventor on the patent applications. WWCC is a limited liability company registered in Hong Kong which promises to help reduce the carbon footprint of individuals and organisations from their activities as well as backing entrepreneurs globally in the effort to sequester greenhouse gas emissions. Curiously, it offers clients “the ability to offset emissions via the online shopping cart”.

This column’s interest in this million dollar discovery is not so much on the windfall that it will generate. We are curious about the origin of the gene and what it means to biodiversity under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the global treaty that came into force in 1993. We are also keen to know if it will respect the convention’s Nagoya Protocol which aims at “fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilisation of genetic resources”. This access and benefit sharing (ABS) agreement is considered pivotal in conserving and protecting the world’s shrinking bioresources.

The alga from which this gene was sourced has travelled halfway across the world—from West Africa to southern Australia after nesting in European laboratories. It was collected from the Lake Ayame in eastern Côte d’Ivoire and was taken in large quantities by Pierre Metzger, a biological scientist from France, who was convinced that it was this rarer Race B algae and not the commonly found Race A algae which held the key to producing high grade fuel.

However, he made no headway in genotyping the algae because of the lack of technology at the time. Metzger, a senior biochemist at the Paris Institute of Technology (Chemie ParisTech), a public research institute in France, later heard of Ball’s interest and is reported to have gifted his stock of B braunii to the Australian scientists.

While WWCC, which also has partnership with RMIT in addition to that with Flinders, calls it “a fantastic example of collaboration between business and universities”, there are questions if there is any ABS with any institutions or communities in Cote d’Ivoire. What this case underlines is the importance of tracking ex situ collections of biodiversity which are increasingly being commercially exploited. It can be argued that since the gene was, apparently, collected in the 1980s, the CBD does not apply here but experts say the Nagoya Protocol on ABS comes into play whenever a genetic resource is utilised—if there is a national law on this. The protocol, concluded in 2010, needs ratification by 50 members to come into force and so far it has just touched the halfway mark. Cote d’Ivoire, interestingly, is one of the 25 countries to have done so in September this year.

What the case also highlights is the need for ABS safeguards even if genetic resources are collected for academic purposes as Metzger did. Countries should therefore be careful to have clear laws that say ABS is mandatory whatever the academic affiliation of the collector. Academics usually end up selling their discovery to commercial enterprises.

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