DNA-based animal identification technique in credit dispute

K. S. Jayaraman

doi:10.1038/nindia.2015.20 Published online 10 February 2015

A technique used globally for DNA-based identification of animal species is now at the centre of a credit dispute. Scientists at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad claim that credit for one of their patented inventions is being given to a group in Canada — a charge that the Canadian scientists say does not hold good since they use a different region of the gene in their technique. 

The Universal Primer Technology (UPT) – for which the CCMB scientists hold a patent in 14 countries including the US – is based on a concept that just a tiny segment of the genome can serve as a 'molecular signature'. Variations in its DNA sequence can be used to identify any bird, fish, reptile or mammal from a given biological sample. It can, among other things, detect adulteration of animal meat in food products, and help curb illegal trade in wildlife.

"Wildlife forensic scientists everywhere use UPT for species identification," Sunil Kumar Verma, principal scientist at CCMB and co-inventor of the technology told Nature India. "But the credit   is going to a Canadian scientist who uses a method fundamentally the same as ours going by the name of 'DNA barcoding.' Though our patent predates his publication and sets the priority, our work never gets credit."

Sunil Kumar Verma (left) and Lalji Singh
In their patented invention Verma and Lalji Singh, then CCMB director, use a pair of primers (mcb-398 and mcb-869) to amplify the 'signature sequence' from cytochrome-b (Cyt-b) gene located in mitochondria. This signature is matched with the array sequences freely available in the National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) database to exactly identify species. 

This very concept is also the basis of 'DNA Barcoding' developed by Paul Hebert, a zoologist in the University of Guelph, Canada. The dispute now is who should be rightfully credited for species identification done using this concept. 

Verma claims that 'DNA barcoding' is just another name for UPT, the only difference being "the former uses Cytochrome oxidase subunit-I gene (Cox-1) instead of the Cyt-b gene that we use. Everything else is just the same."

Hebert told Nature India he was "unaware of Verma's involvements in this field" until Verma launched a major email campaign in May 2014 claiming priority of  UPT over DNA barcoding. 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. 

Hebert denies there is any patent infringement as 'DNA barcoding' employs a different gene region to accomplish its goals. "DNA barcoding is distinct....and there is no infringement as Verma’s patent focuses on amplification of Cyt-b gene while DNA barcoding employs Cox-1."

Verma's technology grabbed national attention in 2000 when a famous Indian cine star was convicted for hunting and killing an endangered black buck whose identity was established from confiscated meat samples using Verma's method. Till date, the method has helped crack over 1500 wildlife crimes in India and is routinely used in the Hyderabad-based government Laboratory for Conservation of Endangered Species (LaCONES) that provides wildlife forensics services.

"We don't see any fundamental difference between the principle and concept of UPT and DNA barcoding," Singh told Nature India noting that the term 'molecular signature' is liberally used in his patent document. "UPT has priority over 'DNA barcoding' since the date of our patent application is 28 March 2001, while Hebert's paper on 'DNA barcoding' was published sometime in 2003. By that time we had reported 20 cases of wildlife identification in various courts in India using our technology."

Though Herbert's first paper was published in 2003, his group was "actively involved" in the development of a DNA barcoding system for aquatic organisms using the Cox-1 gene since 1998, the Canadian scientist says. The first public disclosure of his work, he adds, was made as early as June 2000 at the ASLO 2000 Conference Workshop held in Copenhagen ahead of Verma’s decision to file for a patent. 

Some ethicists find holes in Hebert's argument. "DNA barcoding may be an independent discovery but Hebert cannot say he got to know about the CCMB work only after Verma's email campaign," says Nandula Raghuram, a professor of biotechnology at the Indraprasta University in New Delhi and former secretary of the independent scientific ethics group Society for Scientific Values (SSV). 

Verma and others in Singh's group have been publishing in this area consistently since 2002 and his patent was online on the US Patents Office website since October 2002, says Raghuram. "In any case, ignorance of published work is unacceptable in science and failure to cite a legitimate and cite-worthy prior published work is one of the internationally accepted criteria for defining plagiarism."

"Our concern is that while our patented primers were being used, the credit for such investigations is invariably given to DNA barcoding," Singh said. For instance Therion International, an animal testing laboratory in New York used Verma's method and patented primer pairs to uncover the Florida fish scandal in 2006 revealing that almost half of seafood it analysed was wrongly labelled as a more expensive variety. 

"Not only the use of our primers by the US company was an infringement of our patent, it was Hebert's 'DNA barcoding' that hogged news headlines and commentaries in journals," Verma said. Will Gergits, Managing Member and Therion spokesman did not reply to Nature India's request for comment.

Raghuram says the current dispute is not over a stolen idea — since both Hebert and Verma started work on this concept using different genes for the same purpose and published their findings almost simultaneously —  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.