Like the miners and gold panners before them, these prospectors search for hidden treasures scattered throughout the natural world. But their gems are not shiny stones and precious ores -- today's bioprospectors mine organisms for molecules that can fight disease, protect the environment, or even make a better laundry detergent.
At the 99th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) May 30-June 3 in Chicago, a microbiologist from the U.S. Department of Energy's Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory will be co-chairing a symposium on bioprospecting. INEEL's Rick Colwell and his colleague Anna-Louise Reysenbach, a microbiologist from Portland State University, have gathered a panel of experts who will speak on microbial diversity, the search for novel natural products, and the intimate relationship between natural resource preservation and bioprospecting.
Bioprospectors explore organisms for naturally occurring molecules that can improve human life. "Some early drugs were happenstance discoveries of some phenomenon in the lab that ended up serendipitously being valuable," said Colwell. "But bioprospecting is shifting scientists toward intensive searches for chemical products that would have been subtle or difficult to detect."
Bioprospectors look to nature to get a head start on developing useful products. "The natural world has spent a long time experimenting with chemistry," said Colwell. "We can ask, what good chemistry has already been done in natural systems and how do we go about finding it? Bioprospecting offers a directed scientific approach to evaluate new products such as antibiotics, anti-cancer drugs and anti-parasite drugs."
With interest in bioprospecting growing alongside a worldwide interest in species preservation, Colwell volunteered to bring together speakers to address the topic at the ASM meeting. The panel of six speakers ranges from a San Diego marine biologist to a Costa Rican microbiologist, and they will discuss tapping species diversity for the development of drugs, chemicals, and tools for basic research.
For some, bioprospecting arose out of an interest in conservation. Costa Rica is a Central American country with an estimated 4 percent of the world's biodiversity even though it takes up only 0.001 percent of the earth's land mass. They also have one of the most extensive land conservation programs -- Costa Rica's national park system makes up 25 percent of the nation's territory. In 1989, Costa Rica created the National Institute for Biodiversity (INBio) to promote biodiversity conservation and to learn to use its biodiversity to improve the quality of human life.
At the symposium, Ana Sittenfeld, head of the Bioprospecting Division of INBio, will discuss policy and scientific issues that INBio has dealt with over the years. Conservation in Costa Rica is driving an economic shift from production of a few crops to expanding the use of their natural biological resources as well. "They have harvest-based economies," said Colwell, "but they want to have the economy related to the natural diversity innate to that region and now being preserved there."
Bioprospecting also supports conservation of cultural diversity, Colwell said, because indigenous people reveal what resources are useful. "Bioprospecting must involve native cultures," he said. "They have an understanding of how to use natural products."
Biodiversity exists in both the macro world -- the one we can see -- and the microbial world. Speakers will address bioprospecting for both worlds. An expert on worldwide diversity, Thomas Lovejoy from the Smithsonian Institution will discuss how species diversity is an unrealized wealth for nations, and of the importance of conserving species in order to take advantage of that wealth.
Within the microbial world, scientists are realizing how many species are as yet unknown. Understanding genetic diversity within the microbial world is a first step towards mining useful products from it, and University of Washington microbiologist James Staley will discuss bacterial genetic diversity and contrast it to the genetic diversity of plant and animal species.
A potentially significant untapped source for bioprospecting is marine microorganisms. William Fenical from Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, CA, will discuss the development of new drugs from ocean-dwelling bacteria and fungi for the treatment of diseases and inflammation. He will also present evidence to support the idea that the world's deep oceans will be a significant resource for drug discovery.
Biotechnology companies are also getting involved in bioprospecting to find novel molecules for medical applications or as tools for basic research. The organizers invited molecular biologist Doris Hafenbradl from Diversa Corporation in San Diego, CA. Diversa is committed to accessing microbial diversity in their drug and chemical discovery process. The company routinely investigates microbes from extreme environments gathered from around the world -- including the U.S., Iceland, Germany and Costa Rica.
A final issue that will be discussed at the symposium is how to keep track of and predict the biodiversity within various ecosystems. INEEL microbiologist Daphne Stoner will talk about the development of a prototype Internet-accessible database for the cataloging and mapping of microorganisms found in extreme environments. Such a database management system can be used to manage and protect the natural resources of a variety of ecosystems, including the subsurface strata or the oceans.
INEEL celebrates its 50 year anniversary in 1999. The national laboratory is operated for the U.S. Department of Energy by Lockheed Martin Idaho Technologies Company.
Note to Editors: Rick Colwell can be contacted at 208-526-0097 or
email@example.com. He will be at the ASM meeting in Chicago May 29-June 2