Groups sue over microbes


Groups sue over microbes

Three environmental organizations are suing the National Park Service over plans to allow private "bioprospecting" in Yellowstone National Park.

Charging that the park has conducted "closed-door dealing with a part of our national heritage," the Edmonds Institute of Edmonds, Wash., the Center for Technology Assessment in Washington, D.C., and the Montana-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies are demanding full disclosure of Yellowstone's arrangements with a private corporation.

Heat-resistant microorganisms from Yellowstone's hot springs - such as Thermus aquaticus, which produces an enzyme used in DNA fingerprinting - have made millions for private corporations. Now, the park wants to cash in. In August, the park signed a contract with the San Diego-based Diversa Corp., allowing it to collect microorganisms in exchange for $175,000 and an undisclosed share of future profits (HCN, 9/29/97). Yellowstone has since signed a $200,000 contract with a private consultant to help broker more deals.

"They've deeply violated the public trust," says Beth Burrows of the Edmonds Institute. "These arrangements should have been made in full sunlight with as much public participation as possible."

Michael Scott of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Bozeman, Mont., says bioprospecting contracts are a potential conflict of interest for the park, with Yellowstone standing to gain a great deal of money by backing off from its mandate to protect the park's resources.

Yellowstone spokeswoman Marsha Karle says the fee paid by Diversa is voluntary, and that Diversa and the park have a legal right to keep the specifics of the deal under wraps.

"We're still handling the research in the park as we always have," she says. "The only difference is that now we're getting a return. Don't they think that's a good thing?"

* Michelle Nijhuis

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