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Money and Microbes in Antarctica

By Kate Ruder

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Antarctica’s cold, exotic landscape has inspired explorers and scientists for centuries. Now, some are worried that biotechnology companies could be the next unbridled speculators, this time for the continent’s genetic treasures.

A new United Nations report recommends that rules are needed to protect the Antarctic and its organisms from exploitation by pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, as well as by research institutions.

It recommends that the Antarctic Treaty System—a group of nations that governs Antarctica—establish regulations to control the “commercialization of genetic resources” on the continent.

These genetic resources are Antarctica’s extremophiles—strange and exotic organisms such as bacteria or animals that live in harsh environments like frigid water and lakes that are 10 times saltier than saltwater.

These organisms survive in Antarctica because of their unique configurations of genes and proteins. Knowing more about their genes could help biotechnology companies develop new drugs, technologies for improving medicine, or even cosmetics.

A protein from an extremophile is currently the basis of a $300 million biotechnology industry. The temperature-resistant protein is used in diagnostic tests for medicine and forensics, and a Swiss Pharmaceutical company bought exclusive rights to this protein in 1991.

Diversa Corporation, a biotech company in San Diego , California , has exclusive rights to any organisms harvested from hot-water geysers in the Kolbeinsy Ridge north of Iceland.

So who owns organisms in Antarctica and how should profits from these organisms be shared? Do we have a responsibility to protect these organisms and monitor how they are collected and used?

That’s the topic of the UN report called “The International Regime for Bioprospecting: Existing Policies and Emerging Issues for Antarctica.” Faculty at United Nations University’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Tokyo, Japan, wrote the report.

In recent years, international cooperation has been a hallmark of scientific research in Antarctica, and countries such as the United States and Australia maintain research outposts on the continent year-round. Antarctica is a shared international territory under the Antarctic Treaty signed in 1961.

Related GNN Article
Antarctica, Extremophiles, and Extraterrestrial Life
Not much bioprospecting is going on right now in Antarctica, says Sam Johnston of United Nations University and an author of the report.

Nevertheless, rules should be put in place before bioprospecting takes off. Details about these rules are not currently available. The Antarctic Treaty System is expected to take up the issue at its meeting in May.

View the report online at the United Nations University.

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