A technique used globally for DNA-based identification of animal species is now at the centre of a credit dispute between scientists from India and Canada. Sunil Kumar Verma, principal scientist at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) and the institute's former director Lalji Singh say that they are upset that credit for their invention, patented in 14 countries including the US, is being grabbed by a Canadian group.
CCMB's Universal Primer Technology (UPT) can be used to identify bird, fish, or any animal species from a given biological sample. Among other things, the technology can help detect adulteration of animal meat in food products, and curb illegal trade in wildlife estimated to be worth at least $19 billion per year globally.
The invention is based on a concept that just a tiny segment of a gene located in a part of the cell called mitochondria can serve as a ‘molecular signature’ and slight variations in the DNA sequence of this segment can be used for species identification. The CCMB technology grabbed national attention in 2000 when a famous Bollywood actor was convicted for hunting and killing an endangered blackbuck whose identity was established from confiscated meat samples using this method.
The Parliament was informed recently that CCMB's invention has helped crack over 1,500 wildlife crimes in India and is routinely used in the Hyderabad-based Laboratory for Conservation of Endangered Species (LaCONES) to provide wildlife forensic services. The concept that the CCMB scientists exploited for species identification is also the basis of 'DNA Barcoding' developed by Paul Hebert, a zoologist in the University of Guelph in Canada and published in 2003 -- two years after the CCMB group filed for patent.
The dispute now is who should be rightfully credited for work done using this concept. The CCMB scientists say their patent, filed in 2001, predates Hebert's publication and thereby sets the priority. "By the time Hebert published his work on DNA barcoding in 2003, we had reported 20 cases of wildlife identification in various courts in India using our method," co-inventor Lalji Singh, who was one of the pioneers of DNA fingerprinting technology, said.
"Hebert's 'DNA barcoding' is fundamentally the same as ours and is just another "fancy" name for our technology, the only difference between the two being the genes used are different," says Verma. "But wildlife forensic scientists everywhere cite Hebert's DNA barcoding -- apparently attracted by its catchy name -- and our work hardly ever gets credit," Verma said. "This is killing me."
According to Hebert, the dispute is pointless. He says he was unaware of Verma's work in this area until May 2014 when Verma raised this issue in an e-mail campaign. Although Verma had filed his patent claim in 2001, "his work was invisible to members of the international scientific community for a substantial interval since his patent was not granted until 2006," Hebert said in an email.
He added that though his first paper on 'DNA barcoding' was published in 2003, his group was "actively involved" in its development since 1998 and the first public disclosure of his work was made as early as in June 2000 at a Conference in Copenhagen before Verma filed for his patent.
In any case, Hebert says, there is no patent infringement as his 'DNA barcoding' employs a gene region different from the one used by the CCMB group. But some ethicists find holes in Hebert's argument that he was unaware of the CCMB work until May 2014.
"The CCMB scientists have been publishing in this area since 2002, and their patent, though granted in 2006, was online in US Patents Office website since October 2002," says Nandula Raghuram, a professor of biotechnology at the Indraprastha University in New Delhi and former secretary of the Society for Scientific Values (SSV).
"In any case, ignorance of published work is unacceptable in science and failure to cite a legitimate prior published work is one of the internationally accepted criteria for defining plagiarism." According to Raghuram, Verma's case is not unique. "We in SSV had taken up at least three cases of Indian scientists who were plagiarised abroad and there was very little response (to our complaints)," he said.
He says the current dispute is not over a stolen idea -- since both made the discovery independently -- but over the failure to give due credit. "Near simultaneous publications are credited as independent-but-simultaneous discoveries as per the general convention in science and, accordingly, both their papers should have been cited by others in the field," Raghuram said. "But Verma and Singh were not given any credit for this invention which is certainly unfair,” he added.