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Who will own deep-sea life?

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

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Studying these creatures is a costly proposition. Ship time runs roughly $10,000 a day. Once bacteria are brought to the surface, they must be prepared quickly for culture before they begin to die. Once the preparations are complete, the petri dishes they now inhabit must be placed in steel-and-titanium vessels that can reproduce the temperatures and pressures the bacteria normally experience - as high as 7.5 tons per square inch. And it takes time to process and analyze samples.

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"If all you're doing is going out to collect DNA, you'll really be limited in what you'll discover," he says.

More-targeted searches might yield better results, he says. But the investment of time and money remains large.

Indeed, even in-shore prospecting can tax wallets - and local sea life. The UN study notes that a compound derived from sea sponges, known as spongistatin, is used as an anticancer agent. During research, it took 2.5 tons of sea sponges to isolate less than 1 ounce of the compound.

Still, the study notes that the number of potentially useful compounds for every compound tested is higher for marine organisms than for land-based organisms. This has led to global sales for marine biotech products worth roughly $100 billion a year.

Over time, as technology improves for sampling and analyzing deep-sea organisms, interest in hunting for genes in trenches, along hydrothermal vents, along the slopes of sea mounts, and at cold seeps on the seafloor is expected to grow.

Some analysts point out that the Law of the Sea Treaty draws a distinction between mineral resources under the sea and biological resources - namely fish. Mineral resources outside a country's exclusive economic zone belong to everybody. International panels were set up to ensure that a portion of the proceeds from mining would be channeled into aid or other help for developing countries. Fish hooked on the high seas, however, belonged to whoever caught them. Genetic material falls into the realm of biology and so should be available to whoever can haul it up and turn it into something useful.

Yet the UN's Dr. Johnston notes that in addition to costs, the lack of clear rules governing deep-sea bioprospecting is preventing many companies from taking the plunge - delaying the potential benefits experts envision for building new marine biological compounds into medicine, farming, industry, environmental clean-up, and cosmetics. Such research is important to undertake, he says.

Deep-sea ethics

Beyond these stumbling blocks lie what Johnston and his coauthor Charlotte Salpin see as overriding ethical and environmental issues.

Biological materials under the high seas are "not just open- and free-access. They are actually the resources of the world community," Johnston says. "Developing countries and other people should benefit from this research as well as the few who can afford to spend substantial sums at the bottom of the ocean."

What happens here could set precedents for tapping resources from other "commons" areas such as Antarctica, the Arctic, and outer space, he adds.

Ms. Salpin notes that some of the techniques researchers use today can destroy portions of the ecosystems they are studying. Ground rules for preserving these ecosystems also should be part of any international agreements, she says.

The UN report outlines a number of options with their pros and cons, ranging from modifying existing international agreements to inventing something out of whole cloth.

With so much already on the global agenda regarding the oceans, drafting a rule book for something as far into the future as bioprospecting the deep-sea floor might seem like an exercise for underworked international lawyers.

Yet the study represents a valuable contribution, notes David Balton, US deputy assistant secretary of State for oceans and fisheries. "It's calling attention to the issue and educating us all a bit more on what's out there."