One Corporation Holds Most of Ocean’s Genetic Patents

Organisms from deep sea hydrothermal vents are among the ocean dwellers with patented genetic material. | NOAA Ocean Exploration & Research

One corporation has registered nearly half of all patents on marine genetic sequences and virtually all marine genetic resource patents are registered to entities from only ten countries, according to a study published in the June 6 issue of Science Advances.

The analysis also revealed that a single corporation — BASF, the world's largest chemical producer, headquartered in Germany — registered 47% of all patented marine sequences. Furthermore, entities located or headquartered in ten countries registered 98% of all patented sequences, suggesting that 165 countries are underrepresented, said the study authors.

The findings highlight the need for inclusive global participation in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea treaty negotiations starting in September 2018 that will address the use of marine biodiversity in international waters.

According to Robert Blasiak, an author of the study from Stockholm University, the entities that own the majority of patents related to marine biodiversity "could play a very important and valuable role in supporting efforts to ensure that areas beyond national jurisdiction can be accessed by all and benefit all."

Many marine organisms have evolved unique adaptations to succeed in some of the ocean's most extreme conditions, such as extreme pressure, heat and cold. Their unique genes could be useful for a number of applications, ranging from pharmaceuticals to enzymes that can be used to synthesize biofuels. Companies, organizations and universities register patents that are associated with these marine genetic resources (MGRs) to have exclusive access to their potential economic benefits.

Blasiak and colleagues said little is known about MGR patents. Studies so far have only focused on countries where patents have been registered, rather than on the individual entities registering them.

"I was often surprised to hear people talking about countries owning patents, or about countries patenting MGRs. This always confused me because I always associated patents with commercial endeavors and companies — not countries. Yet, I couldn't find any research showing what companies were actually registering these patents." said Blasiak.

To shed light on who holds MGR patents and what types of marine species are being included in such claims, Blasiak and colleagues accessed 38 million records of patented genetic sequences and identified patents for 12,998 genetic sequences extracted from 862 marine species, including the sperm whale, manta ray and plankton.

"Everything [we found] was a surprise, to be honest," said Blasiak.

A wide range of species have been the focus of patents. The majority (about 73%) are associated with microbial species. Fish represent 16% of the registered patents and 11% of patented sequences are from species associated with deep sea hydrothermal vent systems.

The analysis also revealed that 221 companies had registered 84% of all patents. Public and private universities, on the other hand, only accounted for 12% of all patents.

Blasiak said the fact that specific companies and countries are patenting large amounts of MGRs is not a concern by itself, noting that "many of these actors are industry leaders and dedicate tremendous resources to research and development, paving the way for new innovations."

The concerning issue, Blasiak said, is that more entities — especially ones from the global south — are not involved in marine patenting. This creates an uneven playing field for developing countries who sign on to the UNCLOS treaty, and may continue to stall treaty negotiations until participating developed countries with more resources commit to supporting equitable development and transfer of marine technology. This support, Blasiak and colleagues said, will ensure that the process moves forward in an inclusive manner.

The countries and companies that own the majority of MGR patents have a unique opportunity to play an important role in the future of high seas biodiversity and its governance, said Blasiak. "So much remains to be discovered that will benefit human society … [These countries and companies] can be leaders in promoting a more equitable roadmap for ensuring sustainable use of ocean resources."