Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 2020


As life sciences technologies have advanced, so too has the potential for these international collaborations to lead to breakthrough medicines, enhance food security, and protect ecological systems. The linchpin of this progress is the development of high throughput genetic sequencing technologies. Researchers are now able to generate and compare large stretches of DNA - 1 million bases or more - from different sources quickly and inexpensively. Such comparisons can yield massive amounts of information about the role of inheritance in susceptibility to infection and illness as well as responses to environmental influences. In addition, the ability to sequence genomes more quickly and inexpensively creates enormous potential for new diagnostics and therapies. This is true not only for sequencing the human genome, but also for sequencing the genomes of simple and complex organisms that comprise the entire human environment.

This Article will first provide examples of where international collaborations have led to advances in medical and agricultural benefits for populations in both rich and poor countries. It will then describe how new life sciences research collaborations, primarily using genetic sequencing technology, may detect potential human pathogens, characterize microbial life, and catalogue the unique genetic information in all wildlife species. It will situate these biogenomic projects in the context of the international access and benefit sharing law, derived from several sources, but most importantly the 1993 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Finally, this Article will analyze four of these new international collaborations to demonstrate that the common tensions that arise between generating scientific and other benefits through exploiting new research possibilities, and meeting the food and medical needs of the world's population today are often reconcilable.

Part I of this Article outlines the law and ethics of life sciences research partnerships as they unfolded over the course of the twentieth century. Part II analyzes how advances in genetic sequencing technology may accelerate the pace and impact of new life sciences research collaborations. Part II also examines the development of international law over the course of those technological advances, and how the law now requires or shapes partnerships to benefit all participants and to be mindful of constituencies who may or may not benefit. Part III examines four major collaborations, using these case studies to show how the international law of biodiversity is shaping their objectives and channeling their benefits and also addressing persistent ethical questions about the use and distribution of scarce resources. Part IV sets out the conclusions.



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