"Bioprospecting' is a word that has recently been coined to describe the centuries-old practice of collecting and screening plant and other biological material for commercial purposes, such as the development of new drugs, seeds and cosmetics.
Companies that sponsor bioprospecting expeditions, in particular from the pharmaceutical or food industries, hope to find information from the biological resources they collect that will lead to new products, for example novel drugs. Some of these expeditions also seek to acquire useful information about such resources from local people including, in the case of drugs, native healers.
It can also be argued that bioprospecting also plays a wider role in encouraging the preservation of biodiversity. Many conservationists, for example, believe that by highlighting and — hopefully — confirming the economic potential of a wide range of biological resources, bioprospecting expeditions can create incentives to protect tropical forests, coral reefs and other biologically diverse and threatened ecosystems.
At the same time, however, a growing number of critics complain that bioprospectors often fail adequately to compensate the countries and communities that provide access to their resources and associated traditional knowledge (TK). Such critics argue that patents on products developed as a result of the efforts of 'bioprospectors' are sometimes based so closely on TK that they are in fact a form of intellectual piracy." (http://www.scidev.net/dossiers/index.cfm?fuseaction=policybrief&policy=40§ion=170&dossier=8)