Microbe hunt

a quest is underway to find commercially useful microbes. For the first time ever, an international consortium of scientists is exploring the remote areas of Tibet and China's Inner Mongolia province for these tiny organisms.

The scientists will scour the inhospitable environs of soda lakes, salt lakes and hot springs in the region for extremophiles (microbes which survive in severe weather conditions). Once found, their enzymes and deoxyribonucleic acid (dna) will be collected. The project is, however, attracting criticism as there is a lack of clarity about the benefits of these discoveries accruing to the two politically contested areas.

The three-year project is the result of a collaboration between the eu and China. Bill Grant, a scientist in the department of microbiology and immunology at the University of Leicester, uk, will lead the venture. Once a molecule is developed, the Netherlands' branch of Genencor International Inc will have the exclusive rights to manufacture and market the product worldwide.

But how local people in the two regions stand to gain from this programme is still unclear. While, a report in the journal Nature says that the Chinese science ministry has negotiated with the consortium to retain "sovereign rights' to biological resources found in any commercialisation, the case of Tibet is shrouded in uncertainty. John Ackerly of the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet points out in the report: "It is the European researchers responsibility to make sure that Tibetans are engaged and given benefits, because Beijing won't do it.'

Both China and the eu have signed the un Convention on Biological Diversity, which aims to ensure that indigenous communities benefit from any commercial gains that may be derived from the use of their biodiversity. It remains to be seen whether the two make a genuine effort to adhere to the pact in letter and spirit.

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