Traditional biological knowledge tends to be uncomfortably juxtaposed between two worlds - the ancient, where knowledge was freely shared by all, and the modern, where it is jealously protected through patents.
But the past few months have seen milestones in bridging this divide.
Last month, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) partially rejected Pfizer's patent on its impotence drug, Viagra, because of similarities with a Chinese herb known as horny goat weed.
And in January, the European Patent Office (EPO) revoked a patent for a traditional remedy extracted from the roots of endemic South African plants.
Both actions are examples of a growing trend to incorporate traditional knowledge into modern patent applications. They follow agreements - signed last year by the USPTO and the EPO - with India to consult its Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) before granting patents.
Knowledge brought to book
India's TKDL is a 24 million-page, multilingual database on traditional remedies and medicinal plants.
According to Samir Brahmachari, director-general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Delhi, it was set up partly in response to two expensive and protracted legal battles in the 1990s over widely used traditional medicines.
In 1995, the USPTO granted a patent to the University of Mississippi Medical Center for the use of turmeric powder as a wound-healing agent. That this was not novel knowledge would have been obvious to anyone travelling through India, where turmeric-doused bandages are commonly used. But it took the Indian government two years to overturn the patent.
Another 1995 patent stood for longer still. It was not until 2000 that a patent for a neem-based fungicide - granted by the EPO to the US Department of Agriculture and the multinational W. R. Grace - was revoked.
Raghunath Mashelkar, who led the fight against the EPO patent as Brahmachari's predecessor, was a key player in setting up the TKDL and explains its significance.
"For the first time, traditional knowledge started to be codified in a language and in systems that the patent offices could use," he says.
China has a similar database on traditional Chinese medicines that is in use by the EPO.
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