Deep Seabed Bioprospecting the Latest Goldrush

NEW YORK, New York, June 8, 2005 (ENS) - Organisms that live on seabeds deep beneath the world's oceans need protection from commercial exploitation, warns a new report to be introduced Thursday at UN Headquarters in New York. The ecosystems at risk are seamounts, cold seeps and hydrothermal vents that are considered nurseries for life on Earth.

New technology has speeded exploration and bioprospecting of the deep seabeds, and scientists say the potential now exists for severe, perhaps permanent damage to these unique and sensitive ecosystems.

“Ethical concerns have been raised with regard to the status of deep seabed genetic resources,” says the report's lead author Salvatore Arico of UNESCO, a visiting research fellow at United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies. “These resources lie within the global commons, but are they free for anyone to take or are they the heritage and property of all humankind?”

The report, "Bioprospecting of Genetic Resources in the Deep Seabed," says that there are no clear rules governing access to sea beds or how their benefits are to be shared.

Arico and coauthor Charlotte Salpin write that much of the commercial expoitation of seabed organisms is likely to be for medical uses.

Antioxidant, anti-fungal, anti-HIV, antibiotic, anti-cancer, anti-tuberculosis and anti-malaria drugs are derived from ocean organisms. Applications for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, cystic fibrosis and impotence are also under consideration, the authors say.


Deep-sea hydrothermal vents form along mid-ocean ridges, the volcanic undersea mountain ranges where new seafloor is created. (Photo courtesy NASA)
“Deep sea ecosystems hold the promise of huge potential contributions to future human well-being, provide our planet with vital climate-related and other ecological services, and have much to teach us about life processes,”

While deep sea ecosystems may contribute much to future human wellbeing, Institute of Advanced Studies Director A.H. Zakri of Malaysia is concerned about the future wellbeing of those ecosystems.

“The unfettered and unregulated exploitation of international sea beds and the organisms living there could have serious long-term consequences for humankind,” he said. “And for the private sector, uncertainty caused by the absence of clear, globally-agreed rules deters important research and investment decisions.”

The commercial rewards of developing a medicine from a marine organism, but the odds of success are long - only one to two percent of pre-clinical candidates become commercial products.

Nevertheless, the report says all major pharmaceutical firms, including Merck, Lilly, Pfizer, Hoffman-Laroche and Bristol-Myers Squibb, have marine biology departments, and cites the following estimates:

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.

But there are shortcomings to these international agreements and to intellectual property rights instruments governing access and benefit-sharing to genetic resources, the authors point out.

There is the need to:

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.

The authors recommend that regional agreements could be used as a first step towards a comprehensive international regime to protect the deep seabed from over-exploitation.

The report suggests that the UN General Assembly adopt guidelines on deep seabed bioprospecting to be used until a binding regime is developed.

The authors say 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.