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.
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.
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."
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.
"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.
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."