Underlying Research

Three people conduct research in Yellowstone National Park
Conducting Research in Yellowstone National Park

NPS Photo

What kinds of research can lead to benefits sharing? While any scientific research could lead to a potential commercial application, in most cases, scientific research that specifically looks in parks for a useful application, process, or product that may result in a commercial application for the research results is most likely to lead to benefits sharing.

The search for useful applications of natural resources is an ancient quest in every human culture. Cultural traditions reflect accumulated experience and knowledge, such as information about which plants are nutritious, make good dyes, and are good medicine. This knowledge is revealed not only by living cultural traditions but also by archeological investigation of past cultures. Today, scientists continue to find useful applications for compounds from nature, but the search methods have changed. Biochemists chemically analyze plants, microorganisms, and other living things, resulting in discoveries not even visible under a microscope, such as enzymes (biological molecules) that act as catalysts for chemical reactions.

Sometimes, the only way to obtain a useful organic compound is to extract it from a naturally-occurring organism that contains it. But, thanks to improvements in science, useful compounds first discovered in nature can now often be chemically manufactured in a laboratory or factory, and sometimes they can be made by genetic engineering. An example is insulin, a hormone vital to human utilization of carbohydrates and fats. Many people with diabetes must take insulin as a medicine. Pharmaceutical manufacturers use genetic engineering techniques to produce insulin from microbial cultures of bacteria specially bred for producing insulin at a commercial scale. In other examples, manufacturers make compounds by applying the findings of molecular biologists who identify in wild organisms genes that control production of a desired compound, copy the compound-producing gene, and insert the gene copy into laboratory bacteria. Manufacturers apply these findings by growing the altered bacteria to produce more of the compound, which humans can then use.

Sometimes scientists identify a need for a certain chemical and look for it in nature. Just as often, however, a scientist may unexpectedly discover in research results a valuable application that is unrelated to the original intent of the research. For example, a researcher may accidentally discover new kinds of antibiotics while studying how frogs survive in the wild. Another scientist may be trying to determine how microorganisms live and accidentally discover a biochemical process that proves useful to humans for protecting themselves from a particular infection. Archeologists documenting ancient cultures may discover an ancient domesticated plant variety that is more disease-resistant than related contemporary varieties.

Current research in U.S. national parks most likely to result in benefits sharing is related to the study of microorganisms. Microorganisms are highly adaptable and can live almost anywhere, including the bottom of the ocean in Dry Tortugas National Park, in glacial ice in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, and in thermal pools in Yellowstone National Park. Any scientist who wants to collect or study in national parks must get a Scientific Research and Collecting Permit, or other applicable permit. Parks issue Scientific Research and Collecting Permits for the conduct of research that will advance science and education while not impairing the parks. Federal regulations prohibit sale or commercial use of any natural product from national parks; hence harvesting of park resources directly for commercial purposes is prohibited. Under a Scientific Research and Collecting Permit, scientists are authorized to take only limited quantities of research samples out of a park, and they are not allowed to sell or otherwise commercialize those research samples. If a scientist makes a practical or useful invention or discovery during research, the research results may be commercialized after entering into an agreement with NPS wherein NPS agrees to share benefits or declines to share benefits, but the sample collected from the national park unit may not be sold or otherwise used for commercial purposes. If a scientist proposes a commercial application for research results, the scientist must contact the park that issued the permit to negotiate benefits sharing.

Case Study

In 1966, Thomas Brock, a microbiologist at Indiana University, was studying microorganisms living in Yellowstone National Park's thermal pools. He named one of the organisms—a bacterium, that he discovered in a sample from a thermal pool—Thermus aquaticus. This microorganism lives and thrives in water so hot that it would kill an ordinary plant or animal. Dr. Brock learned how to grow Thermus aquaticus in the laboratory and deposited a living sample at the American Type Culture Collection (a repository that maintains living cultures of microorganisms) for safekeeping and distribution to other researchers, upon request.

In 1985, Cetus Corporation, a biotechnology company, was working on developing a new way to duplicate genetic material to facilitate genetic studies—individual molecules of DNA are too small to study effectively. The key to working with DNA was to replicate the DNA molecules in order to get enough to study. A scientist at Cetus, Dr. Kary Mullis, had previously invented a way to duplicate DNA for which he received a Nobel Prize. This new process was called the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). But, PCR required high temperatures, which destroyed the polymerase enzymes in the method being used at the time, requiring laboratory technicians to tediously add fresh enzymes throughout the PCR process.

Then, Dr. Mullis's colleagues at Cetus added an enzyme to PCR that had the unusual ability to keep working at high temperatures. Using a previously published process, they isolated that enzyme—Taq polymerase—from the Yellowstone Thermus aquaticus, which they had gotten from the American Type Culture Collection. PCR using Taq polymerase was so effective that a whole new scientific field has flourished as scientists finally had a convenient way to study DNA. Dr. Brock's academic work in Yellowstone had a practical application that he never imagined during his studies twenty-five years previously.

Today, the DNA copying process, made practical because of a series of studies using a Yellowstone microorganism, is widely used. Taq polymerase has led to the uses of DNA that are so familiar today—from matching DNA in criminal investigations, to medical diagnoses or cures, bioremediation of toxic wastes, and research into the basic building blocks of life.

At the time of this research, NPS did not have a benefits-sharing policy; however, this case study is a good example of the kind of research that could lead to benefits sharing.
Green thermophile streams in a snowy winter scene in Yellowstone National Park
Norris Geyser Basin thermophile streams in Yellowstone National Park

NPS Photo / Jacob W. Frank

Last updated: August 7, 2018