Bioprospecting – why is it so unrewarding?

Author: Firn, R.D.

Source: Biodiversity and Conservation, Volume 12, Number 2, February 2003 , pp. 207-216(10)

Publisher: Springer

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Some economic analyses have placed high values on the chemical diversity residing in threatened habitats [, Conservation Biology 6: 128–130; , In Biodiversity and its Importance to Human Health, Columbia University Press, New York; , Journal of Political Economy 108: 173–206]. Consequently, bioprospecting (searching for new biologically active chemicals in organisms) is considered by some to be a way of funding the preservation of biodiversity, especially in the less developed countries. However, the large multinational pharmaceutical and agrochemical companies spend very little of their research effort on bioprospecting [, Phytochemistry 55: 463–480]. Why is this? The answer lies in the fact that any chemical (whether a synthetic or a natural product) has a very low probability of possessing useful biological activity. The common belief that every natural product has been selected by its producer such that only biologically active natural products are made is not correct. Given that random collections of synthetic or natural products have a similar chance of containing a chemical with specific activity against any one target, and given that synthetic chemicals are nearly always much easier to synthesise on an industrial scale, it is predictable that major agrochemical and pharmaceutical companies will devote only a limited amount of their R & D budget to bioprospecting. Although argued that scientific advances will make bioprospecting more cost-effective in future, an alternative scenario is presented where current biotechnological developments will further erode the value of bioprospecting. It is concluded that there should be no reliance on large-income streams being available from bioprospecting agreements to help fund the preservation of biodiversity.

Keywords: Bioprospecting; Conservation; Screening; Secondary metabolism

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of York, Department of Biology, York Y01 5DD, UK

Publication date: February 1, 2003

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