Vast genetic treasure on sea beds
Vast genetic resources – "blue gold" on the international deep sea floor – need protection from unfettered commercial exploitation, warns a new report from the Japan-based United Nations University Institute for Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS). Increasingly recognized as important to humankind for their potential medical and other uses, deep sea resources are now more accessible and vulnerable than ever because of rapid advances in exploration technology, the report says.
Known as "extremophiles," the genetic make-up of organisms of the deep that live in extreme conditions of pressure, temperature and toxicity is drawing enormous interest from scientists and companies bioprospecting for possible pharmaceutical or industrial applications. Already several valuable products have been created and there is growing recognition of the potential of deep sea genes to advance human welfare.
Marine-derived drugs can be used as antioxidant, anti-fungal, anti-HIV, antibiotic, anti-cancer, anti- tuberculosis and anti-malaria. Applications for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, cystic fibrosis and impotence are also under consideration.
Other compounds have anti-inflammatory properties and one is used as an anti-irritant in cosmetics.
A hormone extracted from salmon has been found effective in preventing osteoporosis while a salmon-derived sulfate is an antidote to the anticoagulant heparin.
Sponges are particularly targeted as potential sources of pharmaceutical products. One of the most effective treatments for leukemia is based on derivatives of a sponge while a sponge-derived steroid compound completed phase one US trials as an asthma drug in 2000. Other research in progress includes treatments for breast and ovarian cancer.
Impediments to this research include not just the high expedition costs but the absence of clear rules governing resource access benefits sharing. Some companies say uncertainty over access procedures is a major deterrent to their research and investment, according to the report.
Seabed is not a lawless realm, but almost
Bioprospecting in the seabed within territorial limits is currently regulated by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which determines states’ jurisdiction, rights and obligations in the oceans, as well as in the Convention on Biological Diversity, which governs access to genetic resources and benefit-sharing.
While most countries have regulations on marine scientific research in their waters and seabed, only a few have legislation regulating access to and exploitation of their marine and other genetic resources.
Many of the world’s unique seabed ecosystems lie in international waters beyond national jurisdiction with no international rules. And no state has yet adopted measures addressing bioprospecting undertaken by its nationals in international waters.
The UNU-IAS report identifies shortcomings in UNCLOS, the Convention on Biological Diversity and intellectual property rights instruments governing access and benefit-sharing to genetic resources. These include the need to:
Designing a regime for bioprospecting in the deep seabed
The report says regional agreements could be used as a first step towards a comprehensive international regime to protect the deep seabed from over-exploitation.
It also suggests the UN General Assembly adopt guidelines on deep seabed bioprospecting to be used until a binding regime is developed. The guidelines could facilitate cooperation and coordination between states and, drawing on existing global and regional instruments, include measures on conservation, sustainable use and the sharing of benefits.
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