As military bands, rangers on horseback and Vice President Al Gore marked Yellowstone National Park's 125th anniversary in August, park officials signed a contract that formally opened the park's famous hot springs to bioprospecting. The deal allows San Diego-based Diversa Corp. to collect samples of hot-water microbes, called thermophiles, in exchange for $175,000 over five years, plus an undisclosed share of future profits.
While park and corporate officials
touted the deal as a tribute to the value of pristine environments
like Yellowstone, two small groups threatened to sue the National
Park Service for selling the resources national parks are supposed
"They're treating Yellowstone as if
it's a business commodity," said Beth Burrows of The Edmonds
Institute, which, with the International Center for Technology
Assessment, asked Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to halt
collection of park microorganisms until the Park Service does a
thorough public review. Says Burrows: "We didn't preserve
Yellowstone for corporate purposes."
Thermophiles were unknown at Yellowstone's
inception in 1872, but today mean big money to companies like
Diversa (HCN, 4/29/96). One Yellowstone microbe, Thermus aquaticus,
produces an enzyme that makes DNA fingerprinting possible. It now
makes hundreds of millions of dollars annually for Swiss
pharmaceutical giant Hoffmann-LaRoche. Although Thermus aquaticus
was discovered prior to bio-prospecting rules, Park Superintendent
Michael Finley says he hopes Hoffmann-LaRoche will make voluntary
contributions to the park.
companies are also eager to strike deals similar to Diversa's,
which Finley says will both pay for natural resource management and
increase knowledge of the park's tiniest
"One good way to protect something,"
adds Diversa molecular biologist Eric Mathur, "is to show it has