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Know the West

Microbes for sale here

  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 to protect.

"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.

Other biotech 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 inhabitants.

"One good way to protect something," adds Diversa molecular biologist Eric Mathur, "is to show it has value."

* Michael Milstein