Spider-Venom Profits to Be Funneled Into Conservation

August 13, 2004

Scientists at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, are "bioprospecting." In other words, they're searching for compounds in nature that are useful to science. And they're doing it in a whole new way.

"The goal is to connect the financial benefits derived from the natural world with the cost of conservation," said project director Dick Cahoon. Cahoon serves as the executive director of the Cornell Center for Technology, Enterprise, and Commercialization.

Called Venom Venture, the project's goal is to tap into profits from the medical use of spider venom. Cahoon says his broader aim, however, is to create a model with reciprocal benefits to the environment.

"The point is that any profitable discovery that comes from wildlife can then be used to fund the protection of wildlife."

The Starting Line

The first conservation-oriented bioprospecting deal was brokered by Cornell in Costa Rica. It mandated that the country's National Institute of Biodiversity (INBio) in San Jose provide samples of various organisms to the Merck pharmaceutical company. If Merck discovered a useful compound, some of the profits would then funnel back to INBio for conservation.

"The concept was a big hit. At first people thought, Wow, this is really going to change conservation worldwide. Companies are going to plunk down millions of dollars to preserve national parks in order to have access to the biota [plants and animals] there," Cahoon said. "That hasn't happened, because finding a profitable compound is not easy. You have to sample a lot of things. So we needed to figure out how to make that search more efficient."

Cahoon notes that, while finding a new hit drug from natural sources is difficult, the potential payoff is immense. "Lucrative discoveries are being made in nature all the time."

For example:

• Researchers in Japan are now looking at the sweat of hippopotamuses, because it contains ultraviolet blockers and antibiotic properties.

• Ocean sponges have novel structures that engineers are using to design new optical fibers.

Continued on Next Page >>


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