Deep sea: the last frontier
This year, the International Day for Biological Diversity is being celebrated under the theme 'Marine Biodiversity'. The world's ocean is amazingly rich in life and perhaps nowhere more so than in the deep sea. Here, over millions of years, species have developed unique properties to enable them to cope with extreme living conditions, such as high pressure levels. It is the very uniqueness of these properties which offer exciting potential for the development of new drugs to treat all sorts of human ailments.
Products based on marine organisms have already found their way onto the market and are now being prescribed to sufferers of asthma, tuberculosis, cancer, Alzheimer's disease, cystic fibrosis and male sexual impotence, among others. Other industries, such as those for oil or paper, are also bioprospecting the deep sea with promising results.
Today, there are no legal restrictions on exploring the deep sea for the purposes of research or financial gain when it comes to its living resources. In principle, it suffices to have the financial means and the sophisticated technology needed to explore a world that in parts lies as far as 11 km beneath the ocean surface. In practice, deep-sea bioprospecting remains the prerogative of the 'lucky few'. This raises a number of questions. Firstly, as this newly discovered 'blue gold' is mostly located in international waters, making it extra-territorial in international law, it can be argued that the genetic resources living in the deep sea belong to humanity as a whole and therefore ought to be exploited equitably. Secondly, if we are to protect these precious resources and the ecosystems in which these are found, we shall have to exploit them in a sustainable manner.
Why bioprospect in the oceans?
The marine habitat is unique for the diversity of its living organisms. Of the main taxonomic groups (phyla), almost all are found in the oceans and half are exclusively marine. If bioprospecting will be crucial to improving human well-being, it is in the oceans that bioprospecting’s greatest potential lies.
Marine biodiversity is amazingly dense in certain parts of the world. In the lndo-Pacific Ocean, for example, there are as many as 1000 species per square metre. In this highly competitive and sometimes harsh environment, marine species have had to develop strategies for survival, such as resistance to the toxicity, extreme temperature, hyper-salinity and pressure that characterize the deep seabed. We know from experience that there is a higher probability of selecting active compounds of potential interest to the health and other industries from marine organisms than from terrestrial organisms. This means that, statistically, marine organisms are of greater commercial interest than terrestrial ones.
It is hardly surprising then that many pharmaceutical firms have marine departments. One could cite the examples of Merck, Lilly, Pfizer, Hoffman—Laroche and Bristol—Myers Squibb. Biotechnology companies are also interested in marine products, as the related licenses can be sold not only to pharmaceutical companies but also to industry. Nowadays, it is biotechnology companies, which tend to be small, ﬂexible and adaptive structures, which are responsible for most of the discoveries, whereas ‘big pharmaceuticals’ tend mostly to license the latter.
Marine bioprospecting of the deep seabed is developing rapidly. An analysis of Patent Office databases reveals that several organisms have been used for commercial purposes. These inventions relate to the genomic features of deep seabed species but also encompass techniques developed to determine these features or to isolate active compounds.
These techniques are not inventions, sensu stricto, but are nevertheless considered as such under the current international property rights regime.
Other patents deal with the isolation of enzymes important for industrial processes, the isolation of cellular compounds that guarantee unique properties (such as resistance to extreme pressure and salinity) and the discovery of mechanisms ensuring resistance to extreme temperatures and toxicity, these extreme properties being of interest for both biomedical and industrial applications.
There is no consensus on the financial benefits derived from worldwide sales of biotechnology-related products taken from all types of marine environments but these are estimated to represent a multibillion dollar market. A marine sponge compound used to treat herpes, for example, generates earnings of US$50—l00 million a year; and the value of anti-cancer agents taken from marine organisms is estimated at close to US$l billion a year.
The oddity of the deep-sea environment
What sources of energy are available to communities living in dark zones? Biochemists have long demonstrated that different forms of energy can sustain life. Light is probably the first to spring to mind, as this serves as the basis for photosynthesis (from photo meaning light), but methane, sulphideszl, oil, etc. are also forms of energy. Where there is no light, as in the deep sea, creatures rely on chemical energy (or chemosynthesis). The hydrothermal vents, cold seeps and methane vents we shall shortly discover are all ecosystems which depend on chemical energy. In the absence of light, life in dark waters can also depend on organic substances — dead or alive — reaching the depths of the ocean. Thus, the composition of benthic communities (the term indicates a dependency on the bottom) will rely partly on the availability of organic substances falling all the way down to the seabed. Whale bones for example are known to constitute an excellent surface on which benthic communities deprived of local sources of energy can settle and develop.
Hydrothermal vents are home to communities capable of withstanding extremely high temperatures; at their source, these temperatures can be nearly as hot as 400°C, in immediately adjacent waters, they can be as hot as 120°C or more. Vents are typically inhabited by a well-developed microbial community. Deep clams, worms, crabs and other macro-organisms feed on this community, which comes at the bottom of the food chain. Both micro- and macro-organisms at vent locations can withstand extreme toxicity and pressure.
The deep ocean also inhabits areas that tend to be currently geologically inactive but biologically very active, namely seamounts. These form the basis of a typical community of organisms made up of cold corals, sponges and the like. They also provide a habitat for fish and other species of ecological and commercial interest, such as orange roughy, swordfish, tuna, sharks, turtles and whales. Seamounts are home to a particularly high number of endemic species.
If exploitation has only just begun of life forms found in hydrothermal vents, cold seeps and similar deep-sea formations like mud volcanoes and brine pools, the same cannot be said for seamounts. Destructive fishing methods have been used on the rich fauna of seamounts for several years now, including bottom trawling.
Deep sea technology; the prerogative of the luck few?
It is probably fair to say that deep-sea research today is equally important to both pure and applied research, since the discovery of new species not only nurtures basic knowledge but is also likely to lead to the identification of new chemicals, which in turn tend to lead to new applications and new economic markets.
The blurring of the borders between pure and applied research –and public and private interests- would normally not be an issue, if the technology used to explore the seep sea were accessible to the majority or if the legal and policy framework regulating access to deep seabed genetic resources, and the use of these, were clear and equitable. But this is not the case.
Specialized research institutions in a handful of developed countries have come up with unique technologies and techniques based in part on post-war efforts from the 1950s onwards to find peaceful applications for military-based technology.
Deep-sea research is a costly business. From interviews with deep-sea scientists and administrators, it would seem that the cost of sampling operations by a manned deep- sea vehicle down to a depth of a few thousand metres and back to the surface can be as high as US$l million per day, excluding maintenance costs. Although costs are steadily decreasing due to greater efficiency, reliability and simplicity in operating deep-sea equipment, they remain relatively high. If it is true that scientific collaboration has involved a non-trivial number of scientists from developing countries, these are normally visiting scientists. Moreover, developing countries lack the necessary capabilities, including in terms of knowledge and skills, to handle land-based deep-sea research, with the notable exception of molecular biology techniques, which have become increasingly available worldwide. Deep-sea research therefore remains an ‘extravagance’ only a handful of countries and companies can afford.
For the time being, living resources found in the deep seabed in international waters are in a kind of ‘no man’s land’. This is because the current legal and policy regimes under relevant international legal instruments, and especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Convention on Biological Diversity, do not specifically deal with the conservation and sustainable and equitable use of the biodiversity of the deep seabed.
Non-living resources — commonly known as polymetallic nodules — were thought to represent an important economic stake for the international community at the time UNCLOS was adopted in 1982 and up until recently. The International Seabed Authority was set up in 1994 to regulate these resources in the deep seabed in areas beyond national jurisdiction, a portion of the ocean bottom otherwise known as ‘the Area.’ The utilization of non-living resources, including in intellectual proprietary terms, adheres to the principle of ‘common heritage’, according to which these resources belong to all and must be regulated as such.
The same cannot be said for living resources in the deep seabed in areas beyond national jurisdiction, for which there is a clear legal and policy gap. Neither UNCLOS nor the Convention on Biological Diversity regulates the use of living resources found beyond continental shelves or Exclusive Economic Zones. (Within these Zones, the related provisions of UNCLOS, which favour essentially national interests, would apply.) Living resources in the deep seabed were unknown when UNCLOS was being negotiated. Today, the living resources present in the international water column are regulated under UNCLOS’ high seas regime, which is quite liberal and permissive overall, with the exception of the adverse impact of activities carried out under State ﬂags, for which countries are deemed responsible.
The Convention on Biological Diversity adopted in 1992 applies solely to territories falling under national legislation, although the Convention does have the power to regulate activities taking place in territories beyond national jurisdiction whenever these have an adverse impact on biodiversity.
The way forward
The time has come to fill in the important legal and policy gaps described above. Some would argue that this is premature, as long as our scientific knowledge remains incomplete. That is not a valid argument. Once a serious risk of harm to the environment has been identified on the basis of the best scientific evidence available, we must act, even if this evidence is not yet exhaustive. This is known as the precautionary approach.
The United Nations General Assembly offers hope in this regard. The General Assembly has taken the responsible step of setting up an Open-Ended Informal Working Group on Marine Biodiversity in Areas beyond National Jurisdiction.
By Salvatore Arico
Extracts of the article ‘The Last Frontier’, first published in A World of Science, Vol. 4, No. 2.
This article is based on a report co-authored by Salvatore Arico and Charlotte Salpin and published in 2005 by the Institute of Advanced Study of the United Nations University, entitled Bio-prospecting of Genetic Resources in the Deep Seabed.
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