Ownership of genetic materials, environmental consequences in question as 21st Century bio-prospecting gets underway in Antarctica
Work should be stepped up on international agreements to oversee prospecting efforts in Antarctica by research institutions, universities and pharmaceutical companies to discover and stake ownership to promising organisms and compounds with genetic properties that make survival possible in extremely cold, arid and salty conditions, says a new UN University report.
Bioprospectors are starting to turn their attention to many of the world’s last frontiers, such as hydrothermal vents, the deep seabed, the water column of the high seas and polar ice caps. Indeed, according to the report, these frontiers have the potential to create a 21st Century “gold rush” – with bioprospectors trying to find and exploit the unique genetic and biochemical riches of “extremophiles,” organisms that have evolved unique characteristics to survive in Earth’s most hostile environments.
The report notes that developing commercial products from naturally occurring genetic resources or biochemical processes is typically a long, expensive and uncertain process. Even so, annual sales derived from traditional knowledge using genetic resources are $3 billion for the cosmetics and personal care industry, $20 billion for the botanical medicine sector and $75 billion for the pharmaceutical industry. More than 60 percent of the cancer drugs approved by the US Food and Drug Administration are of natural origin or are modeled on natural products.
“Although there has been a recent downturn in bioprospecting overall, it seems that the commercial use of naturally occurring extremophiles will increase, perhaps dramatically, in the near future,” said Hans van Ginkel, Rector of UN University.
“This study shows that the world must be better prepared for this, especially with respect to the Antarctica. Many issues and questions need to be resolved in advance of the further exploitation of genetic resources at the pole.”
UNU-IAS researcher Sam Johnston, report co-author, said the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), the principal international agreement governing activity on the continent, does not specifically regulate bio-prospecting. Moreover, international policies governing bio-prospecting elsewhere are of limited value in addressing these questions.
Among the key issues not addressed by the ATS:
The report concludes that although the physical impact of bioprospecting is currently addressed by the ATS regime, establishing the legal and policy basis that controls the commercialization of genetic resources, in line with the basic principles of the ATS as well as equity and fairness, is a more complex matter.
“Indeed, developing measures on bioprospecting in Antarctica would require some basic conceptual agreement about the overall aims of any regulation and the type of management system that is desirable, feasible, practical, and equitable.”
The study recommends further analysis and research with the emphasis on:
Terry Collins | UN University
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