Global microbial commons: institutional challenges for the global exchange
and distribution of microorganisms in the life sciences
Tom Dedeurwaerdere (FRS-FNRS/UCL)
Dedeurwaerdere, T., 2010, "Global microbial commons: institutional challenges for the global
exchange and distribution of microorganisms in the life sciences", Research in Microbiology. 161(6):
Self-archived author copy
This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only.
For all other uses permission shall be obtained from the copyright owner.
Copyright © 2010 Elsevier Masson SAS. All rights reserved.
Global microbial commons: institutional challenges for the global exchange
and distribution of microorganisms in the life sciences
´catholique de Louvain (UCLouvain), Centre de Philosophie du Droit, Colle
ge Thomas More b146, Place Montesquieu 2 box15, B-1348 Belgium
Received 4 February 2010; accepted 25 April 2010
Available online 2 June 2010
Exchanges of microorganisms between culture collections, laboratories and researchers worldwide have historically occurred in an informal
way. These informal exchanges have facilitated research activities, and, as a consequence, our knowledge and exploitation of microbial resources
have advanced rapidly. During the last decades of the twentieth century, the increasing economic importance of biotechnology and the intro-
duction of new legislation concerning the use of and access to biological resources has subjected exchanges of genetic resources to greater
controls. Their access and distribution are more strictly regulated and, therefore, exchanges are becoming more and more formalized. This paper
analyzes one of the main drivers of the movement toward more formal worldwide exchange regimes, which is increasing global interdependency
of access to genetic resources. Its main ﬁnding is that formalization of exchange practices as such is not necessarily leading to more restrictive
licensing conditions. The goal of further formalization and harmonization of institutional frameworks should therefore be to provide the broadest
possible access to essential research materials (within the constraints set by biosecurity and quality management requirements), while maxi-
mizing the reciprocity beneﬁts of access and exchange (which motivate the exchange practices to start with).
Ó2010 Elsevier Masson SAS. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Culture collections; Material transfer agreements; Governance; Convention on biological diversity
In the twentieth century, there was a tremendous increase
both in the quantities of microbial and genetic resources
exchanged and in the global interdependencies of these
exchanges (Parry, 2004). This movement is related to several
scientiﬁc developments, among which the introduction of
improved techniques for the handling and long-term mainte-
nance of living microbiological samples (e.g. freezing, freeze-
drying), and thus easier and safer shipping of samples, has had
a major impact (Cypess, 2003). Similarly, the development of
innovative methods for the isolation and cultivation of new
microbial strains (Janssen, 2008; Kamagata, 2004), the geno-
mics revolution (Colwell, 2002; Zengler, 2008; Stackebrandt,
2007), and the broader impact of globalization of research in
the life sciences in general (Beattie et al., 2005; Ten Kate and
Laird, 2002) have enhanced interest and cooperation in
The global distribution and exchange of microorganisms is
organized on a formal basis by the network of over 500 culture
collections that are member of the World Federation of Culture
Collections (WFCC) (Dugan and Tang, 2000; Kurtzman and
Labeda, 2009; WFCC, 2010). Access to microbial genetic
resources from the culture collections is granted under terms
and conditions that vary widely between countries and within
countries, between the larger collections ewhich have formal
arrangements for access eand the smaller collections ewhich
often do not use written contracts for access arrangements.
Previous studies have shown that informal exchanges among
scientists and/or culture collections represent a large percentage
of the exchanges (Stromberg et al., 2006;Dedeurwaerdere,
2009). Informal exchange amongst scientists mostly occurs in
the context of collaborative projects or between researchers who
know each other. For example, as stated by one culture
* Corresponding author.
E-mail address: Tom.firstname.lastname@example.org
0923-2508/$ - see front matter Ó2010 Elsevier Masson SAS. All rights reserved.
Research in Microbiology 161 (2010) 414e421
collection manager, in the ﬁeld of clinical research (and in
particular epidemiology), informal exchange occurs on a regular
basis among study groups (to be considered as clubs which
sometimes have their own material transfer agreement (MTA)),
or between researchers who know each other or have read
publications in which particular strains were used. Providing
single strains is usually not a problem, but requests to other
researchers for collections are more complicated because they
cannot give away the material needed their own future research.
Sometimes this is solved by collaborating or inviting the
requesting colleague to come and work in the laboratory of the
donor (L. Dijkshoorn, personal communication). However,
these patterns of informal exchange are not limited to clinical
research, but have been consistently reported to be an important
feature of exchange in all collections in the various ﬁelds of
microbiology (Stromberg et al., 2006; Dedeurwaerdere, 2009).
Informal distribution of strains occurs without any written
contract governing the terms of provision or receipt of the
material concerned, under the presumption that it will only be
used for research and non-commercial purposes. Some
collections even distribute material only on an informal basis.
This is especially true for the smaller and more specialized
collections. Other collections are using or have recently started
to use standard forms for depositing as well as for distributing
strains for non-commercial purposes. As a general trend,
however, more and more collections, in both developing and
developed countries, are moving toward formal arrangements.
This paper surveys recent discussions on the design of
institutional arrangements for the worldwide exchange of
microorganisms and examines propositions for placing the
global microbial commons on a more solid legal and insti-
tutional basis. Most of the survey data reported in the
empirical results section (Section 3) comes from question-
naires that have been addressed to all the culture collections,
independently of their ﬁeld of specialization. The majority of
the answers that are reported did, however, come from the
ﬁeld of environmental, food and agricultural microbiology,
and from some important taxonomic collections. A smaller
number of clinical research collections responded to the
surveys. The ﬁrst section discusses the disadvantages of the
current informal system and presents three real-world
examples of a formal approach. The second section analyses
one of the main drivers of the movement toward more formal
worldwide exchange regimes, which is the increasing global
interdependency of access to genetic resources. Some insti-
tutional suggestions and possible implementation paths are
2. Examples of a self-regulatory approach to formalized
The main advantage of the existing informal networks (clubs
or loose networks of scientists) is to lower transaction costs (that
is, costs related to negotiations to be undertaken, contracts to be
drawn up, inspections to be made, arrangements to be made to
settle disputes, and so on, cf. Coase, 1995), while allowing the
re-use and further distribution of the research materials with few,
if any, strings attached to them arising from concerns about
potential future commercial applications (Reichman, J. H.,
Dedeurwaerdere, T. and Uhlir, P.F., unpublished). At the same
time, tacitly recognized quality management standards
observed by trusted members of the club guarantee the
authenticity and integrity of the materials exchanged.
Despite their presumed efﬁcacy, however, these informal
networks exhibit a number of serious disadvantages (Ibid and
Stern, 2004). They are necessarily limited in size because,
without a personal relationship built on trust, the participants
would not willingly sustain the case-by-case efforts of verifying
compliance with acceptable quality standards. They would also
expose themselves to the risk that unknown third parties could
free-ride on the underlying tacit norms that support the system,
without affording reciprocal access to collections of equal quality
on equivalent terms. If third parties were allowed to extract
materials from the club’s resources, moreover, the original
providers would lose control over them and thereby forfeit the
ability to claim either reputational or commercial beneﬁts from
ensuing research use and commercial applications.
Given the commodity pressures on microbial science,
moreover, the stability of the informal system over time will
probably be diminished as more and more contributors
succumb to the high-protectionist MTAs offered by a few non-
proﬁt and private members of the World Federation Culture
Collections (WFCC). This is illustrated below through the
example of the MTA used by the American Type Culture
The adoption of rather restrictive access measures by several
developing countries, as a reaction to excessive bioprospecting
and patenting by developed countries (Safrin, 2004), further
threatens the efﬁcacy of an informal regime. In particular, access
procedures may lack transparency and be quite complicated,
involving lengthy delays in obtaining genetic materials (Roa-
Rodriguez and Van Dooren, 2008). Scientists from both devel-
oped and developing countries have repeatedly expressed
concern about the harm that restrictive access regulations may
have on scientiﬁc research (Jinnah and Jungcurt, 2009).
To offset these negative trends, some WFCC members have
developed MTAs that formalize the basic norms and beneﬁts
of the informal club system, along with the obligations and
responsibilities that support them. These formal MTAs are,
however, only a ﬁrst step in the attempt to build a truly global
microbial commons and are hampered by the wide variety of
license conditions which are currently being adopted and the
lack of public funding that affects some of the most important
collections. This can be illustrated by three examples of MTAs
adopted by large collections or federations of collections.
These examples have been selected to represent a broad
geographic scope and a wide diversity of funding structures.
2.1. The American Type Culture Collection: an example
of a private culture collection MTA
More than 80% of the WFCC collections belong to public
sector entities (universities or governments). The remaining
are semi-governmental (8%) and, in a few cases, private
415T. Dedeurwaerdere / Research in Microbiology 161 (2010) 414e421
non-proﬁt (4%) or private industry collections (1%) (Stern,
2004). Private non-proﬁt and private industry collections are
more likely to impose restrictive license conditions. One
example is the policy adopted by the American Type Culture
Collection, which currently receives only 15% of its core
funding from direct government grants (Stern, 2004;www.
atcc.org). The ATCC model is the exception rather than the
rule, both because it is one of the rare private non-proﬁt
collections and because of its controversial restrictive license
¨per and Tindal, 2005; Perrone and Soriano, 2005).
However, because of its dominant historical role and the
importance of its holdings, the ATCC attracts considerable
interest from other collections in both developing and devel-
The ATCC MTA (www.atcc.org, last accessed December
2009) requires that the material be used for research purposes
only, within the purchaser’s laboratory. In the case of industry-
sponsored academic research, the authorized use extends only
to research carried out at the university and by the university’s
employees. Any use of the biological materials by the industry
sponsor requires a separate license from the collection. The
MTA also deals with ownership and intellectual property
rights. The collection categorically afﬁrms its “ownership” of
the materials deposited in and distributed from its collection.
Hence, with the notable exception of samples deposited by the
Yellowstone National Park (see Kerry, K., Touche, L. and
Collis A., 1998, http://www.cbd.int/abs/cs.shtmlet al.),
ATCC’s MTA states that the collection and/or its contributors
retain ownership of all rights, titles and interests in the
distributed materials, their progeny and unmodiﬁed deriva-
tives, including any materials contained or incorporated in
modiﬁcations. Any recipient that would violate any of the
terms of this MTA, for example, by distributing type strains
received from ATCC to a third party or using it in a different
laboratory then the one stipulated in the contract, is acting
illegally and faces the eventuality of a lawsuit.
The MTA does, however, recognize that the recipient of the
material has ownership of (a) modiﬁcations (except that the
collection retains the rights to any original material included
therein) and (b) any substances created through the use of the
distributed material which do not contain that material.
Moreover, the conditions discussed here, do not apply to
materials acquired before the introduction of the restrictive
MTA conditions by ATCC in the late 1990s.
2.2. The European Culture Collection model: a license
for public knowledge assets
In February 2009, the European Culture Collection (ECCO)
adopted a core Material Transfer Agreement (see www.
eccosite.org). The main purpose of the agreement was to
make biological material from ECCO collections available
under the same core conditions, which were to be imple-
mented by ECCO members either as such, or integrated into
their own more extended documents.
The ECCO core MTA applies to the distribution of the
material to end-users, intermediaries or those involved in
legitimate exchanges. Recipients must not transfer the material
to any others, except those acting as intermediaries and those
involved in legitimate exchanges. Legitimate exchange is
deﬁned as the transfer of the material between scientists
working in the same laboratory, or between partners in
different institutions collaborating on a deﬁned joint project,
for non-commercial purposes. This also includes the transfer
of material between culture collections for accession purposes,
provided any further distribution by the receiving collection is
under MTA conditions equivalent to and compatible with
those in place at the supplying collection.
The ECCO MTA requires the material to be used only for
non-commercial purposes. If the recipient desires to use the
material or modiﬁcations of it for commercial purposes, it is
the responsibility of the recipient, in advance of such use, to
negotiate the terms of any beneﬁt sharing with the appropriate
authority in the country of origin of the material (as indicated
by the collection’s documentation). In principle, the ECCO
agreement does not require that the collection be involved in
the beneﬁt-sharing negotiations.
2.3. A developing country MTA: the BIOTEC culture
The MTA adopted by the BIOTEC culture collection, at the
National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in
Thailand (see www.biotec.or.th), is an example of a science-
friendly MTA used in a developing country. BIOTEC uses two
standard material transfer agreements, one for the general
distribution of materials to customers (MTA1), and the other
for the exchange of materials between biological research
centers (BRCs) and other culture collections which allow
recipient collections to further distribute the materials to third
MTA1 requires the material to be used only for research
and education. The material may be distributed to co-workers,
as long as it remains under the recipient’s direct supervision.
Its release to colleagues in other institutions (or outside of the
recipient’s direct supervision) is only allowed with BIOTEC’s
written permission and after an MTA1 has been signed
between the third party and BIOTEC. If the recipient wants to
use the material for commercial purposes, BIOTEC will, in
advance of such use, negotiate with the recipient to establish
the terms of a commercial license. The MTA2 is quite similar.
The main difference refers to the part of the agreement
covering other public collections. Thus, the MTA2 allows
further distribution of the material by public collections that
receive material from BIOTEC under the recipient’s direct
supervision or the recipient’s explicit agreement. As with
ECCO’s core MTA, this second model facilitates the exchange
and distribution of strains by the scientiﬁc community.
3. Global interdependency as a driver of exchange
This brief overview of three examples of formal MTAs
allows two important features of the formal MTA regime to be
highlighted. First, the formal MTAs are tailor-made for the
416 T. Dedeurwaerdere / Research in Microbiology 161 (2010) 414e421
various collections. So, in spite of general similarities, each
MTA is different in its details. This reﬂects the heterogeneity
of the culture collections, both in relation to the type of
material that is conserved, their funding structures and the
requirements of their national policy frameworks. Second, the
move from an informal exchange regime to a formal one does
not necessarily mean the introduction of restrictive license
conditions, with the notable exception of the ATCC license
discussed above. As can be seen from the examples of the
ECCO model and the MTA2 in the BIOTEC collection, it is
possible to design formal license conditions that allow further
exchange for non-commercial research purposes.
For the design of a worldwide microbial commons,
however, sufﬁcient guarantees of reciprocity have to be
provided in the exchanges. Therefore, a more systematic
approach, based on a set of agreed rules between the collec-
tions and between the collections and the provider countries, is
needed. The next section argues for the introduction of such
a systematic approach, based on an analysis of the patterns of
interdependency between collections and countries in access
to microbial research materials.
In order to improve the current state of affairs, a better
understanding is needed of the costs and beneﬁts of alternative
institutional frameworks, which would harmonize the condi-
tions of exchange and put the emerging worldwide microbial
commons onto a solid legal and institutional basis. The main
issue that has to be addressed in this context is the creation of
a better ﬁt between these formal institutional arrangements for
building the scientiﬁc commons and the norms and goals of
the microbial science communities (Rai, 1999;
Dedeurwaerdere, 2004; Dedeurwaerdere, 2009; Dasgupta
and David, 1994; David, 2003). In particular, to foster wide
acceptance and thereby accelerate scientiﬁc progress, any
formal arrangements need to be committed to facilitate the
exchange of materials and need to be easy to implement by
regulatory bodies as well as by both parties involved in the
exchange (providers and recipients). This raises a double set of
problems. On the one hand, institutional frameworks that rely
excessively on monetary incentives or formal control can
crowd out the social norms of communalism and the intrinsic
values that drive scientiﬁc communities (Frey and Jegen,
2000; Frey and Osterloh, 2002; Lepper and Greene, 1978;
David and Spence, 2003). This is especially relevant for the
bulk of microbial resources which are exchanged for public
research purposes. On the other hand, without a formal
arrangement of some kind for regulating the exchanges, the
beneﬁts might be restricted to the most advanced researchers
where exchanges are organized on the basis of networks of
The goal of further harmonization of the institutional
frameworks should therefore be to provide the broadest access
possible to essential research materials ewithin the
constraints set by biosecurity and quality management
requirements, while maximizing the reciprocity beneﬁts of
access and exchange which motivated the practice of exchange
to start with (Cook-Deegan and Dedeurwaerdere, 2006;
Dawyndt et al., 2006). The various reciprocity beneﬁts, such
as culture collections receiving strains from many other
collections because they, in turn, provide strains under similar
facilitated access conditions within the network of collections,
or more direct beneﬁts between providers of resources and
users who access to new technologies or training in return, will
be further illustrated in the next subsection.
3.1. Patterns in the exchange of microbial resources
The majority of microbial resources coming into public
culture collections arise from in situ resources, either directly
through collecting by internal staff at the culture collections,
or indirectly through deposits by external researchers; the bulk
Deposits from in situ sources in nine major culture collections in 2005
1234 56 789
Total number of strains N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A 2000 N/A N/A 2500
% Deposited before 1993 51 N/A 90 N/A 35 40 50 50 50
Accessions in 2005 436 886 55 2812 104 32 272 736 108
% Without restrictions 98 N/A 100 86 79 98 100 100 100
% Restriction to non-commercial uses 2 N/A 0 0 0 2 0 0 0
% Other restrictions 0 N/A 0 14 21 0 0 0 0
% National 65 45 98 86 70 100 99 57 100
% Other 35 55 2 14 30 0 1 43 0
Number of foreign countries 18 14 1 3 8 0 1 23 0
Country of origin
% National 26 10 98 98 60 53 99 N/A 41
% Other countries 74 90 2 2 40 47 1 N/A 59
Number of foreign countries 43 42 1 3 16 8 1 N/A 19
Number of strains of unknown origin 35 1 0 19 N/A 0 0 N/A N/A
N/A: data not available.
Source: Dedeurwaerdere et al., 2009.
Note: The WDCM (World Data Centre for Microorganisms) numbers of the 9 collections (http://wdcm.nig.ac.jp/hpcc.html) are 32 (Sweden), 124 (Iran), 296
(Belgium), 308 (Belgium), 342 (Russian Federation), 412 (Spain), 604 (Brazil), 779 (Finland), and 783 (Thailand). The collection numbers not in the same order as
in the Table to protect the anonymity of the research.
417T. Dedeurwaerdere / Research in Microbiology 161 (2010) 414e421
of microbial diversity is still unknown (Colwell, 2002; Bull,
2003). ASM (American Society for Microbiology) journals
state in their instructions that representative strains mentioned
in ASM publications must be made available. In practice this
is not systematically checked, but it is generally considered an
indispensable part of sound microbial science.
Quantitative assessment (Dedeurwaerdere et al., 2009)of
the entire accession databases of a representative set of nine
collections (totaling more than 15,000 single accessions),
covering the years 2005, 2006, and 2007) has shown that new
deposits from in situ resources in the culture collections are
mostly from national depositors (between 45% and 100% of
the new deposits) (see Table 1). However, a substantial
proportion of these new deposits by national depositors come
from foreign countries (over 40% in ﬁve of the eight collec-
tions for which data was available, four of these being OECD
countries). This suggests that national depositors often collect
in other countries and deposit the resulting material in their
national collections. Direct deposits from foreign countries
also represent an important subset. For instance, the survey
showed that every year, depositors from India, the Philippines,
China, Brazil, Columbia and Uruguay directly deposit strains
from their countries in OECD collections. A remarkable fact
that deserves comment in the context of this paper is the lack
of restrictions on the distribution and use of the microorgan-
isms which have been deposited using formal deposit forms.
Eight of the nine collections use formal deposit forms for all
new deposits and between 98% and 100% of these deposits
came without any restrictions attached.
Some new strains deposited in culture collections come
from ex situ collections (Fig. 1). In 2005 Stromberg et al.
(2006) surveyed the 499 public collections that were
members of the World Federation of Culture Collections
(WFCC) and documented the origin of the new accessions to
their collection. Based on 119 fully completed survey forms,
the survey shows that 45% of the new accessions came from
their own collecting efforts in situ, and 30% from collecting
efforts by academic and hospital research groups. Accessions
from research collections were mostly from researchers who
deposited a subset of their microbial strains when publishing
their research results, or who deposited strains to keep a safe
backup copy of important reference material. However, some
20% of all accessions came from other public culture collec-
tions. These accessions are very important, as they represent
well-validated and well-characterized microbial resources.
Their exchange allows research results to be checked by
competing laboratories. It also enables cumulative follow-up
research to be based on identical certiﬁed biological materials
(Furman and Stern, 2006, Working Paper 12523, National
Bureau of Economic Research) and serves as the backbone of
microbial taxonomy (Kurtzman and Labeda, 2009). Finally,
the survey also showed the heavy reliance of industry on the
culture collections for acquiring type and reference materials.
This had also been remarked in earlier studies (Ten Kate and
Laird, 2002; Kuo and Garrity, 2002; Beattie et al., 2005).
The results summarized in this section show the importance
of two types of exchange practices that provide reciprocity
beneﬁts on a worldwide scale: ﬁrst, the exchange of in situ
resources from various geographical regions, and, second, the
exchange of well-characterized materials between culture
collections. Institutional arrangements that reinforce such
exchanges can therefore be expected to increase the socio-
economic beneﬁts from investment in public culture
3.2. Patterns of exchange of digital knowledge resources
(data and literature)
The empirical results on patterns of exchange show a high
level of interdependency between countries in access to and
use of microorganisms. However, it is important to stress that
microbial research relies not only on worldwide access to
microbial resources, but also on access to digital knowledge
resources, such as genomic databases and the published
literature. Increasingly, access to results of genetic sequencing,
strain information databases and bioinformatics is becoming
a key component of microbial research. In many cases,
research results are obtained through computational research
on digital data and information available through on line
databases (Dawyndt et al., 2006). With the introduction of next
generation sequencing technology, these databases are
expanding rapidly and in silico research likewise.
A few studies have documented the scope of the sharing of
digital resources in microbiology. One such study addresses
the problem of access to the microbial research literature
through a survey of 303 journals dedicated in whole or in
a major part to microbial research (Reichman et al, in
preparation). Its principle ﬁndings show that only about 10%
of the microbial journals are fully open access, while 20% are
read-only open access, 20% subscription-based with an
author-paid open-access option, and 50% subscription-based
without any open-access option. Only the fully open-access
journals (and those with an author-paid open-access option)
allow full sharing of the digital resources for automated data
mining, extraction of content, and reassembly for the building
of new knowledge resources such as systematic taxonomic
databases (Agosti and Egloff, 2009). This growing trend
toward more openness can only fully deliver upon its promises
for improving microbial science if the peer-review process is
organized in a serious manner. There is, however, no evidence
from this survey that the peer-review process would be less
well organized in the average open-access journals, in
comparison to the average non-open-access journals.
To the best of my knowledge, no similar study of microbial
databases has been carried out. Increasingly, however, many
essential microbial databases are in the public domain. This is
true for the public culture collections’ on-line catalogues of
strain holdings and associated information, and for many
molecular biology (genomic, proteomic) databases which also
cover microorganisms. However, molecular data in specialized
areas of research are often not deposited in the public data-
bases, and are therefore not publicly available. As a general
rule, the use of the public genomics data is free. However, the
recently adopted EU database directive may complicate
418 T. Dedeurwaerdere / Research in Microbiology 161 (2010) 414e421
matters in the future, though its effects on life science data-
bases is still uncertain (Reichman et al., in preparation).
Despite some major initiatives which will be discussed
below, this brief survey shows that systematic solutions for
enabling automated knowledge integration across the taxo-
nomic, genomic and scholarly literature domains are still in
their infancy. What is needed are measures that provide
sufﬁcient motivation to the research community to make their
upstream data, and their published research results, more
widely available and usable, while preserving attribution and
other reputational beneﬁts to the fullest extent possible.
4. Interim solutions for building microbial commons
The adoption, on an international level, of a set of legally
binding rules to govern transactions involving microbial
resources would potentially alleviate many of the problems
caused by the lack of standardization and formal rules which
characterize the current system of exchange. To the extent that
an efﬁcacious standard MTAwould harmonize the servicing of
culture collections across the globe, it would lay the basis for
a de facto commons for the global conduct of microbial
research in the foreseeable future. The primary questions that
need answering concern the extent to which such a commons
would be truly science-friendly, and the further extent to
which such a science-friendly regime could implement the
potential for new discoveries inherent in digital technologies
and new automated knowledge tools (Dawyndt et al., 2006).
Important steps in that direction could be made by the
systematic adoption in all public culture collections of
implement the use of deposit forms for each new deposit
in a culture collection, thereby putting the practice of
making material available for the broad scientiﬁc
community on a sound legal basis (which is already
a practice systematically adopted by a subset of the public
introduce standard MTA conditions for the distribution of
materials for commercial use, thereby preventing a race to
the bottom, by either providers (who might impose more
restrictions) or users (who might block access to innova-
tions based on materials from foreign countries), as is, for
example, the case in the standard MTA adopted for plant
genetic resources in the International Treaty for Plant
Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (currently
none of the standard MTA’s adopted in the microbial ﬁeld
include standard conditions for commercial use);
explicitly allow public culture collections to redistribute
microbial strains received from other public collections to
collaborating scientists, or a third collection (as is, for
example, the case in the ECCO MTA discussed above).
In short, there is a “bundle of rights” attached to biological
resources which should be regulated by laws and managed
through agreement and contracts. The question of “who owns
what” should be modiﬁed to “who has what rights” over
microbiological resources. Culture collections clearly have
rights in the material they manage and preserve. Having these
rights, they also can specify the conditions under which they
distribute their material. So ownership, appropriately under-
stood, allows the culture collection community to deﬁne when
biological material should be shared on a non-exclusive basis
and, conversely, when a restrictive licensing policy is justiﬁed.
In this way the concepts of the “microbial commons” (shared
use) on the one hand, and “intellectual property rights”
(exclusive use) on the other are not opposed, but become two
complementary tools at the disposition of the culture collec-
tion community (Dedeurwaerdere, 2007; Chen and Liao,
The adoption of a full-ﬂedged international treaty takes
time, however, and, in the light of the threats to the commons
and the good public beneﬁts that may potentially be lost, it is
urgent to work on interim solutions for putting the global
microbial commons on a sound legal basis. These solutions
should aim to go beyond the insufﬁciencies of the informal
Fig. 1. Survey of accession and distribution patterns based on a survey amongst collections that are member of the World Federation of Culture Collections (119
valid responses analyzed). Adapted from: Stromberg, P., Pascual, U., Dedeurwaerdere, T., 2006. Information sharing among culture collections, unpublished survey
419T. Dedeurwaerdere / Research in Microbiology 161 (2010) 414e421
exchange regime discussed above and address the current
fragmentation of incipient formal self-regulatory frameworks.
The end goal of this process might eventually be a full-ﬂedged
international regime, but interim solutions can already be
elaborated, building on and extending the ongoing efforts of
microbial science unions and the culture collection federations
2004; Desmeth, 2004), and within international organiza-
tions such as the OECD (2001) (Re
´chaussat, 2004; Smith,
In the ﬁeld of the microbial commons, there are some
emerging examples of processes of incremental change
leading to the building of a global commons. One prominent
example is the Science Commons MTA initiative. Science
Commons is pursuing ambitious projects to standardize
exchanges of both data and materials that could considerably
increase access and re-use while lowering transaction costs
(see www.sciencecommons.org). In one of its projects,
Science Commons proposes a low transaction cost MTA for
non-commercial uses through a web-based interface, which
can be interrogated via machine-readable search engines. In
2008, a network of laboratories for research into Huntington’s
disease agreed to use this standard MTA and opened up their
catalogues to be accessed through a single semantic network,
allowing materials to be procured by using the same MTA
across all repositories (Kronenthal 2008, see http://www.bio-
A second example illustrates the process of the gradual
integration of digital information networks through the Strai-
nInfo bioportal (Dawyndt et al., 2005, 2006, 2007; Van
Brabant et al., 2006). In February 2007 StrainInfo.net started
a prototype project for the on-line integration of the strain
catalogues of about 20 major collections. Through an agree-
ment with the information providers on the use and re-use of
the content of the databases, it was able to build various
automated knowledge integration tools and webservices.
These included automated strain name disambiguation and
cross-linking of strain names, literature and genomics data.
This network is still growing, and today it covers the catalogue
data of over 60 collections. In a new project (Verslyppe et al.,
2010), StrainInfo is developing a standardized passport for
digital strain information, which should further speed up the
data integration process.
What is common between these and other emerging
initiatives is the negotiation of a collective agreement within
a network of players, who together build a pool of common
biological and digital research resources. These pools are open
to new network members and participants as long as they play
by the rules. The collective agreements are based on the
negotiation of common rules that govern access to and use of
the pooled resources. Other incipient examples in this direc-
tion are the BIOTEC/NITE memorandum of understanding
(www.biotec.or.th), the World Health Organization (WHO)
network of Collaborating Centers for inﬂuenza (WHO, A/PIP/
IGM/13 report, 2009) and the Global Biological Resources
Center Network (GBRCN) pilot project (Smith, 2007). Such
decentralized collective agreements can provide interim
solutions which form a stepping stone between a fully global
legal regime for pooling microbial and digital research
resources and the incipient self-regulatory agreements dis-
Exchanges of microorganisms between culture collections,
laboratories and researchers worldwide have historically
occurred in an informal way. These informal exchanges have
facilitated research activities and, as a consequence, science
and exploitation of microbial resources have advanced rapidly.
During the last decades of the twentieth century, this situation
has changed. Major drivers of this transformation are the
increasing commercial pressures from biotechnology ﬁrms
active in microbiology and the introduction of new legislation
on the use of and access to biological resources. As a result,
the access and distribution of genetic resources are now more
strictly regulated, and therefore, exchanges are becoming more
and more formalized. There is no evidence, however, that
formalization as such is leading to more restrictive license
conditions, although it might lead some collections to depart
from the scientiﬁc-sharing ethos and increase the administra-
tive burden on the collections. Therefore, the goal of the
development of formal institutional arrangements should be to
ensure that both researchers and the broader public receive the
maximum beneﬁts from investments in culture collections and
to enable researchers to continue to build upon the value chain
of investments in research materials and research data.
The author wishes to thank two anonymous reviewers and
the editor of the special issue for the many insightful
comments that greatly improved the manuscript. The author
gratefully acknowledges the support of the Belgian Science
Policy Division of the Ministry of Science under Grant
IUAPVI/06 and the support of the Sixth Framework Program
in Research and Development of the European Commission
under Grant RTD CIT3_513420 REFGOV.
Agosti, D., Egloff, W., 2009. Taxonomic information exchange and copyright:
the Plazi approach. BMC Res. Notes 2, 53.
Beattie, A.J., Barthlott, W., Elisabetsky, E., Farrel, R., Kheng, C.T., Prance, I.,
Rosenthal, J., Simpson, D., Leakey, R., Wolfson, M., Ten Kate, K., 2005.
New products and industries from biodiversity. In: Hassan, R., Scholes, R.,
Ash, N. (Eds.), Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Current State and
Trends, vol. 1. Island Press, Washington, DC, pp. 271e296.
Bull, A.T., 2003. Microbial Diversity and Bioprospecting. American Society
for Microbiology Press, Washington, DC.
Chen, Y.F., Liao, C.C., 2004. Intellectual property rights for a biological
resource centre as the interface between academia and industry. In:
¨ke, I., Swings, J. (Eds.), Microbial Genetic Resources and Bio-
discovery. WFCC Secretariat, Egham, pp. 25e38.
Coase, R., 1995. Essays on Economics and Economists. The University of
Chicago Press, Chicago.
420 T. Dedeurwaerdere / Research in Microbiology 161 (2010) 414e421
Colwell, R., 2002. The future of microbial diversity research. In: Staley, J.,
Reysenbach, A.-L. (Eds.), Biodiversity of Microbial Life. Wiley, New York.
Cook-Deegan, R., Dedeurwaerdere, T., 2006. The science commons in life
science research: structure, function and value of access to genetic diver-
sity. Int. Soc. Sci. J. 188, 299e318.
Cypess, R.H., 2003. Biological Resource Centres: Their Impact on the
Scientiﬁc Community and the Global Economy. American Type Culture
Dasgupta, P., David, P.A., 1994. Towards a new economics of science. Res.
Policy 23, 487e521.
David, P.A., 2003. The economic logic of ‘open science’ and the balance
between private property rights and the public domain in scientiﬁc data and
information: a primer. In: Esanu, J.M., Uhlir, P. (Eds.), The Role of the
Public Domain in Scientiﬁc Data and Information. National Academic
Press, Washington, DC, pp. 19e34.
David, P., Spence, M., September 2003. Towards Institutional Infrastructures
for e-Science: the Scope of the Challenge. Oxford Internet Institute,
Research Report No. 2. The University of Oxford, Oxford.
Dawyndt, P., Vancanneyt, M., De Meyer, H., Swings, J., 2005. Knowledge
accumulation and resolution of data inconsistencies during the integration
of microbial information resources. IEEE Trans. Knowl. Data Eng. 17,
Dawyndt, P., Dedeurwaerdere, T., Swings, J., 2006. Exploring and exploiting
microbiological commons: contributions of bioinformatics and intellectual
property rights in sharing biological information. Introduction to the
special issue on the microbiological commons. Int. Soc. Sci. J. 188,
Dawyndt, P., Van Brabant, B., De Baets, D., De Vos, P., 2007. The StrainInfo.
net bioportal: WFCC goes web 2.0. In: Stackebrandt, E., et al. (Eds.),
Connections between Collections. WFCC and DSMZ, Goslar, pp. 9e13.
Dedeurwaerdere, T., 2004. Bioprospecting, intellectual property law and
evolutionary economics: the stake of a theory of reﬂexive governance. In:
Watanabe, M.M., Suzuki, K.-I., Seki, T. (Eds.), Innovative Roles of Bio-
logical Resources Centres. World Federation For Culture Collections and
Japan Society Culture Collections, Tsukuba, pp. 389e395.
Dedeurwaerdere, T.,2007. Microbiological resources, who owns what? Building
the microbial commons. In: Stackebrandt, E., et al. (Eds.), Connections
between Collections. WFCC and DSMZ, Goslar, pp. 129e130.
Dedeurwaerdere, T., 2009. The role of law, institutions and governance
processes in facilitating access to genomics research. In: Van
Overwalle, G. (Ed.), Gene Patents and Clearing Models: From Concepts to
Cases. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (UK), pp. 365e380.
Dedeurwaerdere, T., Iglesias, M., Weiland, S., Halewood, M., 2009. Use and
Exchange of Microbial Genetic Resources Relevant for Food and Agri-
culture. Background Study Paper No. 46. Commission on Genetic
Resources for Food and Agriculture, Rome.
Desmeth, P., 2004. MOSAICS: development of a system for appropriate
management of access to and transfer of microbiological resources. In:
Watanabe, M.M., Suzuki, K.-I., Seki, T. (Eds.), Innovative Roles of Bio-
logical Resources Centres. World Federation for Culture Collections,
Tsukuba, pp. 293e297.
Dugan, F.M., Tang, J.S., 2000. Culture collections. Encyclopedia of Food
Microbiology 1, 498e502.
Frey, B.S., Jegen, R., 2000. Motivation crowding theory: a survey of empirical
evidence. J. Econ. Surv. 5, 589e611.
Frey, B.S., Osterloh, M. (Eds.), 2002. Successful Management by Motivation.
Balancing Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards. Heidelberg, Berlin and
Springer, New York.
Fritze, D., 2004. The European initiatives MINE, CABRI, EBRCN and ENBI.
In: Watanabe, M.M., Suzuki, K.-I., Seki, T. (Eds.), Innovative Roles of
Biological Resources Centres. World Federation for Culture Collections,
Tsukuba, pp. 297e302.
Furman, J.L., Stern, S., 2006. Climbing atop the shoulders of giants: The
impact of institutions on cumulative research. NBER Working Paper
Janssen, P.H., 2008. New cultivation strategies for terrestrial microorganisms.
In: Zengler, K. (Ed.), Accessing Uncultivated Microorganisms. ASM
Press, Washington DC, pp. 173e192.
Jinnah, S., Jungcurt, S., 2009. Global biological resources: could access
requirements stiﬂe your research? Science 323, 464e465.
Kamagata, Y., 2004. Cultivation of uncultured fastidious microbes ehow can
we cultivate microorganisms that do not want to be isolated. In:
Watanabe, M.M., Suzuki, K.-i., Seki, T. (Eds.), Innovative Roles of Bio-
logical Resources Centres. World Federation for Culture Collections,
Tsukuba, pp. 103e106.
Kronenthal, Ch., 2008. Banking on Personalized Medicine, Bio-IT World
Magazine May 12, 2008. http://www.bio-itworld.com/issues/2008/may/
biobankingpersonalized-medicine.htm (accessed 02.06.10).
Kuo, A., Garrity, G.M., 2002. Exploiting microbial diversity. In: Staley, J.,
Reysenbach, A.-L. (Eds.), Biodiversity of Microbial Life. Wiley, New
York, pp. 477e520.
Kurtzman, C.P., Labeda, D.P., 2009. Type Culture Collections and Their
Databases. In: Encyclopedia of Microbiology, third ed., vol. 6 306e312.
Lepper, M.R., Greene, D. (Eds.), 1978. The Hidden Costs of Reward: New
Perspectives on the Psychology of Human Motivation. Erlbaum, Hillsdale,
OECD, 2001. Biological Resource Centres: Underpinning the Future of Life
Sciences and Biotechnology. In: Science and Technology Series. Organi-
zation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Paris.
Parry, B., 2004. Trading the Genome. Columbia University Press, New York.
Perrone, J., Soriano, J., 2005. Material transfer agreements serve a critical
function. Available at. ASM News 71 (9). http://www.asm.org/microbe/
Rai, A.K., 1999. Regulating Scientiﬁc Research: Intellectual Property Rights
and the Norms of Science, vol. 94. Northwest Univ. Law Rev.. 77e152.
´chaussat, L., 2004. The OECD initiative: towards a global network of
biological resource centres. In: Watanabe, M.M., Suzuki, K.-I., Seki, T.
(Eds.), Innovative Roles of Biological Resources Centres. World Federa-
tion for Culture Collections, Tsukuba, pp. 289e292.
Reichman, J.H., Dedeurwaerdere, T., and Uhlir, P.F., in preparation. Designing
the Microbial Research Commons: Strategies for Accessing, Managing
and Using Essential Public Knowledge Assets.
Roa-Rodriguez, C., Van Dooren, T., 2008. Shifting common spaces of plant
genetic resources in the international regulation of property. J. World.
Intellect. Prop. 11, 176e202.
Safrin, S., 2004. Hyperownership in a time of biotechnological promise: the
international conﬂict to control the building blocks of life. Am. J. Int. Law
Smith, D., 2007. The implementation of OECD best practice in WFCC
member culture collections. In: Stackebrandt, E., et al. (Eds.), Connections
Between Collections. WFCC and DSMZ, Goslar, pp. 18e21.
Stackebrandt, E., 2007. Reconciling microbial systematic and genomics. In:
Stackebrandt, E., et al. (Eds.), Connections Between Collections. WFCC
and DSMZ, Goslar, pp. 120e125.
Stern, S., 2004. Biological Resource Centres: Knowledge Hubs for the Life
Sciences. The Brookings Institution, Washington D.C.
Stromberg, P., Pascual, U., Dedeurwaerdere, T., 2006. Information sharing
among culture collections, unpublished survey report (on ﬁle with the
Ten Kate, K., Laird, S.A., 2002. The Commercial Use of Biodiversity.
¨per, H., Tindal, B., 2005. Material transfer agreements of culture collec-
tions threaten prokaryote taxonomy. ASM News 71, 259e260.
Van Brabant, B., Dawyndt, P., De Baets, B., De Vos, P., 2006. A knuckles and
nodes approach to the integration of microbial resource data. Lect. Notes
Comput. Sci. 4277, 740e750.
Verslyppe, B., Kottman, R., De Smet, W., De Baets, B., De Vos, P., Dawyndt, P.,
2010. Microbiological Common Language (MCL): a standard for electronic
information exchange in the Microbial Commons. Res. Microbiol. 161 (6),
WFCC, 2010. World Federation for Culture Collections Guidelines for the
Establishment and Operation of Collections of Cultures of Microorgan-
isms, third ed. WFCC Executive Board.
Zengler, K., 2008. Does cultivation still matter? In: Zengler, K. (Ed.),
Accessing Uncultivated Microorganism. ASM Press, Washington DC,
421T. Dedeurwaerdere / Research in Microbiology 161 (2010) 414e421