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Work should be stepped up on international agreements
to oversee prospecting efforts in
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.
Many scientists believe that isolating and extracting the substances that allow these organisms to prosper could have enormous implications in biotechnology research, possibly leading to new cancer treatment drugs, antibiotics and industrial compounds.
But in fragile
“Biological prospecting for extremophiles is
already occurring and is certain to accelerate in
“This report suggests that efforts to exploit this new frontier are now threatening to outpace the capacity of national and international law to regulate such things as ownership of genetic materials, the issuing of patents on products that may arise from them, and the potential environmental consequences of harvesting these resources.”
is being released on the eve of a major global biodiversity meeting expected to
attract more than 2,500 global officials and experts to
So far, the report says, biological
One of these is a glycoprotein, which functions as the ‘antifreeze’ that
circulates in some Antarctic fish, preventing them from freezing in their
sub–zero environments. It was discovered in the early 1970s by
The glycoprotein has a range of potential applications, including increasing the freeze tolerance of commercial plants, improving farm–fish production in cold climates, extending the shelf life of frozen food, improving surgery involving the freezing of tissues, and enhancing the preservation of tissues to be transplanted.
A preliminary scan of the US Patent Office
database identified more than 300 references to
Some recent examples:
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
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.
developing measures on bioprospecting in
The study recommends further analysis and research with the emphasis on:
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UNU Institute of Advanced Studies
The International Regime for
Bioprospecting, Existing Policies and Emerging Issues for
 The UNU-IAS Biodiplomacy Initiative identifies and conducts research into the challenges of such emerging issue areas as bioethics, biotechnology, biosafety, access and benefit sharing, biopiracy, traditional knowledge, and genetically modified organisms. It is also involved in agriculture for peace, and the scientific assessment of ecosystems. The creation of safe, equitable mechanisms and institutions to effectively guide the development and use of biotechnology, as well as the equitable sharing of benefits derived from genetic resources are among the Biodiplomacy Initiative’s top priorities. For additional details: http://www.ias.unu.edu/research/biodiplomacy.cfm