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Patented Microbial Collection Boasts 6,000 Strains

By Jan Suszkiw
February 27, 2003

Beneficial bacteria, assorted yeasts and blue-green molds are among thousands of microbes stored in the Agricultural Research Service’s Patent Culture Collection in Peoria, Ill.

The ARS collection is one of 33 International Depository Authorities (IDAs) entrusted with storing and distributing patented microbes, cell lines and other biological materials in accordance with the Budapest Treaty of 1980. Under the terms of that treaty, the patent offices of participating countries ask that applicants deposit their bio-materials in an authorized IDA. They also must disclose new bio- material inventions in enough detail for others to replicate them. Only after the patent is issued will IDA curators meet public requests for samples.

The ARS collection and the American Type Culture Collection, in Manassas, Va., are the only IDAs in the United States. A U.S. patent applicant can deposit specimens in either facility, but any IDA worldwide will suffice. Deposits have to be done only once. Prior to the 1980 treaty, applicants deposited specimens in each country where patent protection was desired.

ARS’ collection, kept at its National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, is the oldest, according to curator James Swezey. The first deposit was made there in 1949, when ARS accepted the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s request to store the antibiotic-producing bacterium Streptomyces aureofaciens. Today, the collection boasts 6,000 patented strains of bacteria, Actinomycetes, yeasts and molds including Penicillium. ARS typically maintains such microorganisms for their agricultural usefulness, such as in fighting crop pests.

Swezey’s duties include placing new microbial submissions in glass containers called ampoules and freeze-drying them. Others are stored in liquid nitrogen. Although the microbes can survive such conditions for 30 to 50 years, Swezey generally revives them every five years for quality-control checks and restocking.

He also assigns microbial identification numbers, such as NRRL B-15132. This identifies the bacterium Pseudomonas fluorescens, strain 2-79, a biocontrol agent that combats “take-all” disease in wheat. As an IDA curator, Swezey must be familiar with treaty details, and thorough about documenting specimen requests, which helps microbial patent holders guard against licensing infringements.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific research agency.