Antarctic Bioprospecting

Bioprospecting is the perusal of nature's genetic library for new food, medicine and pesticide ingredients.

It includes a chain of activities from the screening of plant, animal or microbial species for chemical compounds or genetic components to full scale commercial development of pharmaceuticals or related products.

Organisms that prosper in environments with extreme physical conditions – and are accordingly termed “extremophiles” - are of particular interest.

The polar regions, mountains, hydrothermal vents and deep sea environments provide particularly interesting sources for biological prospecting, and the Antarctic (which includes all of these) is seen as a global hot spot for bioprospecting.

Bioprospecting is already underway in Antarctica and has resulted in a number of commercial products, with others under development. Three examples will give a sense of the scope of Antarctic bioprospecting: 

• Antarctica’s only grass, Deschampsia antarctica, is confined to the northern Antarctic Peninsula and Scotia Arc islands. Research groups and commercial entities in several Antarctic Treaty states have been examining whether its genetic material can usefully enhance frost‐resistance, or altitudinal resilience in pasture grasses and commercial cereals.

• In the mid 1990s, New Zealand and US researchers derived a compound “Variolin B” with anti‐tumour and anti‐viral properties from the sponge Kirkpatricka varialosa found in Antarctic waters. The Spanish company PharmaMar is currently investigating Variolin’s potential anti‐cancer value and Variolin derivatives have already been patented.

• Antarctic variants of the bacterium Escherichia coli have provided a phosphatase useful in slicing nucleic acids (RNA and DNA) ‐ a capability widely sought and used across biomedical, research and commercial processes

The challenge is how to allow positive benefits from Antarctic bio-prospecting  - noting that not all bioprospecting produces valuable – or any – outcomes without incurring environmental harm.

Although the initial stage of bio-prospecting often requires only small samples for the purpose of screening, in the case of marine species, the quantities required at the development phase or in clinical trials can be in the order of tons or thousands of tons. Wild harvesting of these unstudied marine organisms could prove to be unsustainable.

In the case of terrestrial organisms, bio-compounds of interest can often be produced synthetically so that harvesting is not required, but even so, there can be environmental impacts associated with the logistical efforts of accessing and researching them.

On top of this, we need to ensure that competitive commercialism does not compromise the freedom of science and the international cooperation which currently are the norm in Antarctica

The Antarctic Treaty System–- has initiated some discussion on bio-prospecting.

However, because of both territorial and commercial sensitivities, it has so far not been able to agree on any specific legally binding rules for bioprospecting and left it subject to only general environmental rules applicable to all activities.

It is unlikely these rules will protect Antarctica’s environment given the commercial interests from the very powerful pharmaceutical industry.

Developing proper regulations around bioprospecting is essential to safeguard Antarctica’s environment and it is something that Forest & Bird actively supports.

This summary draws upon the following sources:

Alan D Hemmings & Michelle Rogan-Finnemore (2005) Antarctic Bioprospecting. Christchurch: Gateway Antarctica, University of Canterbury.

Alan D Hemmings & Michelle Rogan-Finnemore (2008) “Access, Obligations, and Benefits: Regulating Bioprospecting in the Antarctic.” Pages 529‐552 in Jeffery, Firestone & Bubna‐Litic (eds.) Biodiversity Conservation, Law + Livelihoods: Bridging the North South Divide. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Alan D Hemmings (2009) “Biological Prospecting in the Antarctic Treaty Area.” Invited Opening Paper at the Intergovernmental Meeting of Experts on Biological Prospecting in the Antarctic Treaty Area convened by the Government of the Netherlands, Baarn, The Netherlands, 3-5 February 2009.

Alan D Hemmings (2010) “Does Bioprospecting Risk Moral Hazard for Science in the Antarctic Treaty System?” Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics 10 (1): 5-12.
IUCN (2005). “Report by IUCN” Information Paper 117, Submitted to the XXVIII ATCM