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Who will own deep-sea life?

Hard-to-reach marine creatures may be raw material for new products.

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 16, 2005

Ever since humans' early ancestors first shucked shellfish along the southern coast of France 300,000 years ago, food has been the measure of the bounty of the sea.

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These days, however, the notion of that bounty is expanding. Increasingly, it includes genetic building blocks cradled in unique deep-sea creatures who thrive under conditions once thought impossible for sustaining life.

But as biotech companies begin to eye these organisms as a potential mother lode of raw material for medicines and other products, calls are emerging for rules of the road to help ensure that the benefits of deep-sea gene prospecting are shared globally.

Admittedly, most biotech and pharmaceutical companies are not yet rushing to hydrothermal vents, sea mounts, and other unique habitats to scoop up organisms and figure out if they can be useful. The vast majority of marine bioprospecting these days is done in shallower waters within a country's 200-mile limit, notes Sam Johnston, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies of United Nations University, based in Japan.

Yet as marine scientists learn more about deep-sea habitats and the variety of organisms that live there, commercial interest is likely to grow. Moving now on some sort of regulatory scheme is a chance to get ahead of the curve, he says. And it would provide an antidote to regulatory uncertainty, which is preventing some companies and research groups from pursuing deep-sea bioprospecting more vigorously.

"We have a window of opportunity," says Dr. Johnston, who coauthored a UN report on the issue that was released last week. "The issues are much easier to deal with before commercial interests become heavily vested" in the hunt for deep-sea genetic material.

The issue carries echoes of debates over mining minerals, such as manganese, in the deep ocean, which formed part of the backdrop for the international Law of the Sea Treaty in 1982.

Costly venture

Yet today, manganese remains on the seafloor. In the push to negotiate the treaty "people forgot the economics of it. It's unbelievably expensive to do deep-sea mining," says Andy Solow, director of the Marine Policy Center at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass. "That is also true of bioprospecting in the deep ocean - it's expensive."

"The real prospects for bioprospecting in the deep oceans, especially in the near- and medium-term, are fairly low," he says.

But it differs from mining in significant ways. If the targets are deep-sea bacteria, for example, they can be cultured and preserved once they've been hauled to the surface. Exploiting the genetic information they contain doesn't require a continuous presence on the seafloor.

Oceans cover 70 percent of the planet's surface at an average depth of slightly more than two miles. Little wonder that the oceans contain the majority of Earth's biodiversity. Thus, the allure of the deep can be powerful, even for scientists whose main interest is in understanding how these creatures and their ecosystems work. Their efforts can yield insights into the difficulties associated with bioprospecting on the seafloor.

Doug Bartlett, for example, focuses his work on bacteria from ocean trenches - long, deep gashes in the undersea crust.

"The physical rules that govern existence are so different" compared with what humans experience, says the researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. "Temperatures are close to freezing, the pressure is enormous, they live in perpetual darkness, and food is so variable that their physical basics are controlled in very different ways."