Bioprospecting is a new term that describes the old process of finding promising biologicals for conversion from traditional or indigenous medicine to use in broader commercial medicine applications, often with great profit in exchange for little or no compensation. This is not a formal or official term, but it is an increasingly common term.
In other words, bioprospecting began with the discovery that “There is gold in them there plants and animals!”
The issues of bioprospecting can involve developing countries or regions of developed countries where the habitat or biome holds promising plants, traditional medicine practices or other processes are evaluated, then tested for wider use and profit in developed countries. The essences of many plants are and have been well understood to have the potential for medical and nutritional applications, but there is now a boom in botanical exploration.
But there are also issues of taking tissue for cell cultures, finding out about processes, taking knowledge and taking actual plants and substances that result in great profits without compensation or credit to the sources.
Indigenous knowledge can hold essential keys to facts, myths, history and superstitions about certain botanicals, human tissue and ideas. Such knowledge is gaining importance and respect among scientists who traditionally reviled and rejected it as being “primitive”, irrelevant, mythical or substandard knowledge. But technology can only go so far in getting a complete understanding about the use of natural biological resources, and scientists are beginning to understand that.
In one respect, indigenous knowledge is powerful because it covers thousands of years of observation and learning that is passed down orally from generation to generation. As such, it is as fragile as the humans who hold that knowledge and it contains information that covers the ultimate in human trials.
One area of bioprospecting and indigenous knowledge is that when companies take a real substance, then try to synthesize it in order to make the resulting drug more economical and less dependent upon husbanding delicate plants, change happens. In synthesis, there can be something missing or added in that makes the synthesized result less effective or more inclined to create problems than the natural counterpart.
The crude nature of early bioprospecting caused the destruction of unwanted, but helpful biomass and animals as well as the deaths of many who held the knowledge that was essential to better understandings of the substances in plants and the results of human use. Now, bioprospectors who do field work are beginning to understand that they must have broader educations and capacities and that they must pay respects to the valuable people who hold ancient knowledge in their heads.
Bioprospecting is here to stay, but the issues of patenting or copyrighting original ideas and of compensating for substances and intellectual property is rising. Developing countries are requiring more control, order, compensation and higher standards for getting natural biomass and for protecting and compensating for intellectual property. Developing countries are also doing as much as they can to prevent mass forced migrations or killings of indigenous tribes of people in order to get them out of the way. Also, developing countries understand the processes that lead to deforestation and desertification when bad crop management and tree cutting goes on.
In going beyond organ and tissue donation for transplant on a single use basis and taking human tissue for endless propagation and resulting profit, bioprospecting has expanded into examining the potential of human tissue to make huge and perpetual profits. This is critical, since human tissue is now becoming a promising source of repairs for a host of problems.
In summary, while bioprospecting has a way to go in becoming an official term, it is a common term these days. A related term is “biopiracy”, which describes the lack of protection and compensation for substances and intellectual property and which is causing much controversy.