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Bioprospecting Deals: Harmless Research Or Ruin For Profit?

Diversa Corp. says it will hold up its end of a bioprospecting agreement with Yellowstone National Park, even though the deal has been suspended by a federal judge as the result of a lawsuit by environmental groups.

The privately held San Diego biotechnology firm said Monday that it will "voluntarily fulfill the scientific and economic obligations" of its agreement with Yellowstone. Under the deal, announced in August 1997, Diversa is allowed to comb through the hot springs of the park in search of microbes carrying enzymes with commercial potential. The company must share any revenues from products resulting from the activities.

Last week, Washington, D.C., federal Judge Royce Lamberth suspended the deal, ordering the Department of the Interior to perform an environmental-impact report on the bioprospecting activities. A coalition of environmental groups, who opposed the deal from the start, say the agreement represents the selling out of the park's natural habitat to cash in on the biotech craze. Bringing the lawsuit was the Washington-based International Center for Technology Assessment, the Edmonds Institute of Edmonds, Wash., and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. Phil Knight, a guide and former park ranger, also participated in the case.

The group contends the National Park Service, which runs Yellowstone, does not have the legal authority to strike such a deal. Lamberth has not yet ruled on that issue.

Despite the suspension of the deal, Diversa says it will continue to pay the fees and royalties promised under the deal. The company agreed to pay $175,000 over a five-year period. No products have been developed yet by the firm, but royalties will be paid to the park if and when they are, Diversa said.

A spokeswoman for Diversa said the company is unsure how the judge's order might affect sample-collection activities. Researchers have had access to the park for most of the century, although royalty-sharing agreements are relatively new.

Diversa's activities in the park include taking mud samples from the insides of Yellowstone's famed geysers and other thermal "features," which number close to 10,000. The theory is that microbes that make their homes in the boiling hot environment carry enzymes and other compounds that could be useful in industrial processes, like manufacturing and paint stripping. In the early 1990s, Swiss drug maker Hoffmann-LaRoche commercialized enzymes from the Thermus aquaticus microbe found in the park.

Ironically, it was that discovery that led to protests of the Diversa deal. The enzyme, which is used in DNA fingerprinting, brings more than $100 million per year to Hoffmann-LaRoche. Because there was no deal in place, however, Yellowstone does not see a dime from the product.

"As far as I'm concerned, they (the National Parks Service) gave away a national treasure," Beth Burrows, director of the Edmonds Institute, said when the Diversa deal originally was signed. "That showed they're the wrong ones to carry this out. If they're making business deals and refusing to give us the details, we're going to wonder forever if they got snookered again."

In response to the groups' concerns about the environmental impact of the project, Diversa denies that its activities cause any damage to the environment beyond what normal tourism would cause. Researchers take only small samples of material -- about the size of a measuring cup -- and clones any microbes found.

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