Procedure. A very significant percentage of all patented microorganisms were and are currently stored by ATCC.
So, that is a snapshot of where we were about 12 years ago. Let me switch gears and talk about the commercialization of microbial resources. Microbes have been of tremendous societal and commercial value for millennia. Brewer’s yeast is a good example, as it has been used for baking and brewing for at least 6,000 years. Since the initiation of modern biotechnology, which takes us back to 1980 or so, these microbes have formed the basic underpinning of both generalized non-applied research and applied research. We have just scratched the surface of the commercial potential of these microbes because relatively few have been identified. In recent years, the genomes of several of these microbes have been sequenced, and we have just begun to harness the value of that new information.
Today, some global standards and principles exist, but are being applied unevenly to the characterization, access, and licensing of these microbes and collections. So, just as the world culture collections all have minimum scientific and technical standards, a microbial commons approach—whether it is based on a compensatory liability rule, or on other approaches—is also a potential means of global legal standardization, which is essential for the propagation and development of this potential.
It has been suggested that diverse licensing strategies and techniques have elevated transaction costs and other barriers for relatively simple, collaborative research projects. I think that we can all agree that there are higher transaction costs and that there is also an investment of time associated with the discussions and negotiations that take place. Furthermore, according to the liability rule principle, providing access to all microbial resources and collections will eliminate any of the competitive advantage that arises from keeping these materials and data from other organizations.
However, I have run several companies, and I know my duty is to represent the interests of the shareholder. If I am running a microbial company, the essence of my duty is to extract as much value as possible out of what I am working on. If that means withholding that information from the general public or identifying a collection and utilizing that collection for the best purpose that I can to maximize my competitive advantage, it would be my fiduciary responsibility to do so.
So, there is a potential caveat: A substantial amount of the data in the collections are in private organizations and in companies that are very well funded, such as pharmaceutical companies that are using the data for their own discovery work or for other purposes. It is clear that the limitation of access to these microorganisms does not permit a level playing field on the fundamental research but the actual sequence data is probably of greater value. The primary point to a research commons is that the data and the collections will not be kept locked away inside private organizations, but that the majority will be out in the public domain.
When you look at what is being done with the Brain Research Project, two things are clear: first, that the applied research that will come out of it has not fully manifested itself as it has in microbiology and, second, that the genesis and the progression of the research in brain sciences has been within what is fundamentally a very collaborative government-sponsored research program. While the brain itself is extraordinarily complex, the policy issues surrounding the data are less so, and the neuroscience community is taking a far more linear and straightforward approach than is required in creating a microbial commons.