The microbial commons will need to encompass both genetic resources in culture collections, and materials “in the field” that have never been collected (much less identified). Today, I will focus primarily on materials in collections. Partly because shortness of time limits my ability to focus on all aspects of the microbial commons, and because the culture collections are already so wide-spread and functioning as essential elements of nationally and internationally supported research and development systems. They will clearly play a key role in the commons, authenticating, maintaining and distributing strains. There are approximately 550 culture collections listed under the World Data Center for Micro-organisms, most of them hosted by public and semi-public organizations and universities. They hold approximately 1.5 million strains. Each year, these listed collections distribute approximately 500,000 isolates. Tom Dedeurwaerdere estimates that a considerably higher number of isolates are exchanged each year informally, without legal agreements, as part of informal networks through peer-to-peer exchanges. Tom has also estimated, based on a survey of a number of genebanks, that approximately 50 percent of the materials in culture collections were acquired by those collections prior to 1993, the year the Convention on Biological Diversity came into force.
The year 1993 and the coming into force of the CBD is a very significant date to bear in mind when thinking about promoting a microbial commons, especially when thinking about the status or role of material in microbial collections. Stated bluntly, a culture collection (or a country hosting a culture collection) is free to determine what it wants to do with microbial genetic resources it has acquired from other countries prior to the CBD being implemented in those countries. It can decide to adopt and use an MTA like that described this morning by Jerome Reichman when distributing microbial genetic resources, and in so doing, voluntarily subscribe to the “rules of the game” for the microbial commons. The fact that collections have the possibility treating up to 50 percent of the materials they hold in this way is good news for the microbial commons; it provides a substantial basis upon which to found the commons.
The situation is very different for materials acquired after the CBD came into force (and after it has been implemented by countries). The practical consequence of the implementation of the CBD’s Article 15 is that since 1993—assuming countries have implemented the CBD—acquiring new genetic material requires first getting prior informed consent on mutually agreed-upon terms from competent authorities in the countries of origin of that material. If prior informed consent from the competent national authority is not obtained, the collector of the culture collection cannot take the material out of the country. Nor can a research scientist voluntarily deposit such material in a collection outside the country concerned without the requisite permission.
Consider the implications of this with respect to materials acquired by culture collections between 1993 and the present. The culture collections concerned would have to have the prior informed consent from the competent authority of the country of origin to distribute such material using the microbial commons-inspired MTA. Unless it was mutually agreed when the material was deposited that that the culture collection had the right to later change the MTA it uses to distribute material, the collection would have to go back to the competent authority from the depositing country to obtain permission to use the new instrument.
As far as future acquisitions by culture collections are concerned, it will be necessary to obtain prior informed consent from competent authorities in the countries of origin of microbial genetic resources to redistribute those resources using the commons-