Micro-organisms that contain millions of previously unknown genes and thousands of new families of proteins are abundant in the greatest depths of the ocean according to scientists. These new organisms could be used to create innovative medicines, industrial solvents, chemical treatments and other processes.
Curtis Suttle, professor of earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences at the University of British Columbia said:
“The potential for marine biotechnology is almost infinite. It has become clear that most of the biological and genetic diversity on Earth is – by far – tied up in marine ecosystems, and in particular in their microbial components. By weight, more than 95% of all living organisms found in the oceans are microbial. This is an incredible resource.”
Not all scientists are happy about this. Bioethics experts are saying the natural environment where these organisms thrive, including hydrothermal vents may be permanently damaged by a free for all to capture and reproduce these organisms. There are additional concerns that the areas closer to developing nations could be exploited by chemical and pharmaceutical companies who will make up patent law as they go. Patents applying to terretrial life are easyto enforce but in water sources which can carry organisms far and wide this is not the case.
The issues are set to top the agenda at a biotechnology forum, The Evolving Promise of the Life Sciences, that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) genomics forum are holding in Paris on Monday.
Professor Steve Yearley, head of the ESRC genomics forum and organizer of tomorrow’s meeting said:
“We have controls for regulating the exploitation of animals, plants and microbes on land, but regulating them at sea is going to be much more difficult. We cannot stop pirates off Somalia, so how is someone supposed to protect rare sponges that they find in their coastal waters?”
While only a handful of drugs have hit the market based on marine life, there are thousands in pre-clinical testing.