Prologue: As the world awaits the resolution of problems created years ago by the granting of patents on living organisms and their pieces and products, questions of access and benefit sharing persist: how to avoid biopiracy and ensure justice for those whose biological materials and traditional knowledge may be part of other people's research aspirations and patent applications.



. . . featuring an international cast of characters

. . . in real-life tales drawn from . . . a database of (US) federally-funded biomedical research projects


Today, . . . "The Trade Secrets of Jay McGown" (or "Why We Wonder Just How Much Biopiracy is Financed by the Government").



Last season, Biodiversity Mystery Theatre brought readers a series of thrilling tales derived from the files of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Aided by editor Freida Morris and translator Alexandra Curi, Jay McGown had uncovered projects suggestive of biopiracy and crying for investigation.

In the wake of that first season came praise for McGown, threats to the Institute, and further questions about biopiracy. Among the most frequently asked questions: "Where did McGown get his material?"

Last season, we pointed people to the files and website of the USPTO. (1)

This season, we expose another rich source of projects deserving further scrutiny. In so sharing, we acknowledge that we may be violating the trade secrets of McGown and his hard-working crew. Sorry, Jay.



-- Mention of the name of a person or a project here or on any database should NOT imply that biopiracy has been committed or is being alleged. Mention of principal investigators (PIs) and their projects and organizations should only suggest that further questions MAY be in order. It is always wise to check further.

-- Lack of mention of the name of a person or a project here or on any database should not exempt the unmentioned from further scrutiny for biopiracy. No single database covers all research. Unfortunately, some of the research may appear on NO database whatsoever. It is always wise to check further.

-- Many of the researchers who seek biological materials may either work for or get grants from institutions and agencies that have ethical protocols about bioprospecting. It is worth investigating whether the institutional ethical requirements are enforced and/or stringent enough to avoid problems of biopiracy. It is always wise to check further.



Notes: [a] A process similar to that described below should work with any relevant, searchable electronic database.

[b] Other US federal databases that are not online may be searched by filing a (successful) request under the US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).


CRISP (Computer Retrieval of Information on Scientific Projects) is a searchable database of (US) federally funded biomedical research projects conducted at universities, hospitals, and other research institutions. The database, maintained by the Office of Extramural Research at the National Institutes of Health, includes projects funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH [, including the Fogarty International Center and NIAID, the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease)], Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA), Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), Agency for Health Care Research and Quality (AHRQ), and Office of Assistant Secretary of Health (OASH). Users, including the public, can use the CRISP interface to search for scientific concepts, emerging trends and techniques, or identify specific projects and/or investigators.

In order to access the CRISP system you must use a reasonably recent web browser with JavaScript enabled, such as Netscape 3.0 (or later) or Internet Explorer 4.0 (or later).

The address of CRISP is <>.



Those new to hunting biopirates may find this section useful. Others should skip to the next section ("Using CRISP").

Concerns about biopiracy derive from concern for biodiversity itself and concern for the rights of those who own or steward biodiversity and the traditional knowledge related to it. Thus in every case where biodiversity and/or traditional knowledge is being accessed, the biopirate hunter asks whether the researcher (or company employee or ethnobotanist or whoever is the seeker) has discerned who are the owners/stewards of the sought-after biodiversity or knowledge. Has the researcher obtained prior informed consent from those who have the right to give prior informed consent for the access to and use of this material or knowledge? How has the researcher determined that those he is dealing with indeed are the owners/stewards? Is there anyone who would disagree with the researcher's determination of ownership or stewardship? What evidence is there of the rightful owners/stewards' grant of prior informed consent to the research? Is there a contract? Under what circumstances was it signed? Who advised the owners/stewards of their rights under alien intellectual property systems? What benefits will flow back to the stewards/owners? If they said "no" to the research, were their wishes respected? What agreements about subsequent patents and patent royalties have been made? What restrictions have the local peoples/owners/stewards put on the amount, use and development of whatever diversity or knowledge may be extracted or shared? Are there any time restrictions related to access? Is there an up-front payment to the owners/stewards (or their communities) or just a series of small payments should the researcher or subsequent persons create a (later-developed) viable commercial product from the biodiversity ? Who is doing the bookkeeping on the deal, if anyone? Will the owner/stewards be included in the list of authors of any related publications and patents? How will disputes over the arrangement be dealt with? Can the owners/stewards call the deal off and if so, how? . . . These are but a few of the questions to keep in mind when scanning databases with an intention to monitor for biopiracy.



ADDRESS: The web address of CRISP is <>.


PAGE ONE: Once you access the site, a red box appears in the upper left hand quadrant of the page. It says "Go to CRISP Query Form". Click on the box.


QUERY FORM: Next a "Query Form" appears. Its first box allows you to enter search terms of various kinds.

Here you must decide where your real bioprospecting interest is. What specifically are you worried about? A particular kind of organism? An individual or a group of researchers? A particular country or region of the world? A particular tribal or ethnic groups or national group? What?

The "what" is likely to be your "search term".

If you enter a search term that is the name of a plant, a microorganism, a geographical region, an ethnic community, a city, or a country, without doing anything further but clicking "Submit query", you will either get a list of studies or a notice that no relevant studies have been found. If the research has benefitted from funding by any of the federal agencies listed, it should appear in the list of studies relevant to that name.

If you wish to search a phrase, e.g. "Costa Rica", rather than single keyword(s), click the appropriate button - i.e., "phrase", underneath the search term(s) box.

If your focus is a particular researcher, go to the space for "PI" and enter the name there (not in the first box asking for search terms). Then click "Submit query".

Note: the query form has many, many dimensions along which you can submit a query. Take the time to check them out. You may want to set the number of studies shown to be higher than the preset "250".

If you discover a good "search term" and are rewarded with a list of studies related to that term, congratulations. You have arrived at the beginning of your investigation. With luck, you may only have a few day's more work to do.


THE LIST OF ABSTRACTS: Examine each of the studies whose title appears. Do that by clicking on the title of the study. Clicking leads to that particular study's abstract.

If the abstract looks problematic (i.e., suggestive of a study deserving of further scrutiny for biopiracy), try contacting the researcher - the PI - or his/her organization - and asking your questions directly. The email address of the PI is provided in the CRISP database, along with the abstract. If an email to the PI fails to yield information in a timely way, write the institution with which the PI is connected. That too also listed on CRISP. Remember, however, these are likely to be busy people and institutions. So it may take some time and persistence to get an answer. In the meantime, look these people and studies up on one of the many search engines on the web, starting with Google. Try the library too, including the thesis databases. See if these folks have a bioprospecting track record. And, of course, check out the free online databases provided by government patent agencies in the US, Europe, and elsewhere.

If the PI does answer email, ask for copies of any documents you may be concerned about. If a valid contract exists with the stewards and/or owners of the biodiversity in question, the stewards/owners should have a copy too. Depending on the country involved, copies may also be filed with relevant government agencies. Note: Sometimes, if the steward/owners do not have what you want, they will complete your research for you. This would be the ideal situation. As we said last season, "Only further research, hopefully carried out by those whose biodiversity is the subject of " (your concern). . . will provide the necessary answers.

Do not jump to conclusions, whether you get the information you seek or not. To repeat again, it is always worth checking further.


DEALING WITH FAILURE: Sometimes you just cannot finish the search. You do not find enough information to answer your questions one way or another. In that case, you have three choices: forget the whole thing, file your research until something else turns up, or publish before your research is complete. If you do publish before everything is known, be honest. Point out what you do not know and avoid defaming anyone. If you are lucky, one of your readers may give you the one piece of the puzzle you could not find yourself.



At the Query Form on the CRISP database, in June, 2004, in the space for "search terms",

-- we (Institute staff) typed "bioprospecting" . Five project abstracts came up.

-- we typed "India". 8,417 project abstracts came up. (Almost all were not about bioprospecting, but a few were.)

-- we typed "human genetics". It produced, among others, a study on the "Genetic basis of Syndrome X on the Island of Kosrae". (That might have been worth pursuing.)

-- we typed "Monsanto". Only two study titles appeared. One, "Ecologically Guided Bioprospecting in Panama", looked interesting.

-- we typed "Fiji" and several abstracts were displayed, including this one (almost begging for further enquiry):

Grant Number:

PI Name:

PI Email:

PI Title:

Project Title:
Ecological Leads: Drugs from Reefs and Microbes in Fiji

Abstract: DESCRIPTION (provided by applicant): This is a planning grant to allow a consortium of marine ecologists, chemists, and policy/economic development faculty from Georgia Tech, marine chemists and microbiologists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and natural products chemistry, biodiversity conservation, and economic development faculty from the University of the South Pacific to cooperatively investigate how marine natural products from coral reef organisms in Fiji might be used for drug development, and to enhance local efforts focused on madne conservation and on economic development based on preservation of marine biodiversity. A secondary effort focuses on similar goals in local freshwater habitats. This "drugs from the sea" effort will apply ecological insights and leads from traditional Fijian healers to discover new biochemical diversity among the marine microbes, seaweeds, benthic invertebrates and freshwater macrophytes of Fiji . Coincident with these bioprospecting efforts will be complementary efforts focused on conservation and economic development. In developing countries, successful biodiversity conservation depends on full involvement in the planning process of the users of that biodiversity, thus, promoting the understanding among these users that they benefit from such conservation. At a local level this can be achieved through the development of community-based resource management plans and alternative income-generating activities based on the biodiversity being conserved. Such efforts are already beginning in Fiji , but these would be enhanced significantly by the efforts of this ICBG program. At a larger scale one of the key steps for conservation of genetic resources is developing spatially explicit models of their organization. This will allow systematic exploration for therapeutically useful compounds and enhance the ability to conserve and manage so as to prevent loss of biodiversity and loss of economic opportunities dependent upon biodiversity. Geographic information systems (GIS) will be used to develop a model of biodiversity on the coral reefs of Viti Levu, Fiji and to incorporate a database of environmental parameters. This will facilitate an assessment of the effects of locally managed marine protected areas, and serve as a baseline for early detection of reef degradation.

Thesaurus Terms:
Pacific Islands, biological product, drug discovery /isolation, ecology, marine biology
coral, geographic difference, international cooperation, socioeconomics


505 10TH ST NW

ATLANTA, GA 303320420

Fiscal Year:


Project Start:

Project End:




OPEN QUESTIONS: The CRISP database, like that of the US Patent and Trademark Office, is an excellent starting place for research about bioprospecting and biopiracy. CRISP contains abstracts about biomedical research funded by the U.S. federal government. Several of those projects appear to be engaged in or benefitting from bioprospecting. Unfortunately, because CRISP contains only abstracts, it begs more questions than it answers about whether the research described might also involve biopiracy. Only further investigation. . . hopefully carried out by those whose biodiversity is the subject of desire . . . can answer those questions.




(1) The 2003 season scripts for Biodiversity Mystery Theatre are available at <> .

(2) In mid-June, 2004, senior biopirate hunter Jay McGown spent a half hour on the CRISP database and sent the Edmonds Institute about 250 kilobytes (KB) of abstracts "for further investigation". The abstracts covered research being done all over the world. Because of the length, we do not reproduce Jay's list here. If you would like a copy, write <>. Just put "Jay's List" in the subject line.



BIODIVERSITY MYSTERY THEATRE is produced by the Edmonds Institute, a public interest, non-profit concerned with issues related to environment and technology. Known for its work on biodiversity, the Institute was incorporated in 1995 and is a 501(c)(3) organization under the rules of the US Internal Revenue Service.



The Edmonds Institute
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telephone: 1-425-775-5383
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