The extension of intellectual property rights into the realm of biology has emerged as an increasing focus of controversy in relation to science, biodiversity, agriculture, health, development, human rights and trade. This paper presents the results of a review of international trends in activity for patent protection between 1990-2000 and provisional data to 2004 and 2005 from over 70 national patent offices, four regional patent offices and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) using the European Patent Office esp@cenet worldwide database. The review employed patent publication counts as an indicator of activity for traditional medicines, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and biotechnology. The research provides insights into the internationalisation of patent activity in multiple areas of biology. The review emphasises the need to combine the further development of quantitative methods with qualitative analysis of the implications of international patent activity in relation to biological and genetic material for science, society and policy.