New Delhi

Indian science minister Murli Manohar Joshi greeted last week's revocation of a European patent on the neem tree — which the Indians have traditionally used in medicine and agriculture — almost as if it were a military victory. But his advisers know that piecemeal success will not solve the problem of ‘biopiracy’.

With this in mind, India has announced plans to create a digital database of its traditional knowledge. This will be included in the patent classification system of the Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organization (see Nature 401, 413; 1999).

The database will be available to patent offices worldwide — especially in the United States and Europe — so that data on any Indian plant can be obtained before patents are issued. “This is the only permanent solution to prevent patents from being issued for non-original inventions in our traditional system,” says Ragunath Mashelkar, director-general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in New Delhi.

Mashelkar told Nature that the documentation of 90 indigenous plants with medicinal or industrial uses has already begun — a complete electronic database on these will be available in between six months and one year. All major plants are expected to be covered in the next two years.