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Biopirates Of The Antarctic

by Stephen Leahy

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(IPS) -- Antarctic bio-prospectors are acting like biopirates, plundering the continent's biological treasures before global measures to control its biodiversity can be put in place, experts warn in a United Nations University report released Feb. 2.

"Biopiracy is happening. But the piracy isn't illegal because they're not stealing it from anyone, since no one owns it," says Sam Johnston of the UN University's Institute of Advanced Studies.

Gaps in the existing Antarctic Treaty System now allow organisms to be taken, patented and commercialized, report co-author Johnston told IPS.

The Antarctic Treaty was established in 1961 to protect the continent from uncontrolled commercial exploitation from activities such as mining, militarization or direct ownership by countries. Thirty-nine nations, representing over 80 percent of the world's population, are signatories, including the United Kingdom, United States and Russia.

A number of other treaties now comprise the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS).

While commercial activities like mining and tourism are banned or carefully regulated, there is nothing to stop "bio-prospecting" for potentially lucrative organisms.

Scientific expeditions to collect organisms are strictly regulated under the ATS, which includes strong measures to protect the delicate Antarctic ecosystem. And there is a long tradition of cooperation between scientists, which includes making all research public.

The Antarctic is unique in the world in that it is not owned by any country, Johnston observes. "It's like the moon and Mars."

"Patents and commercialization could change all that," he warns.

"Profit-making is completely alien to the ATS," says Josh Stevens, of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), a group made up of nearly 230 NGOs from 49 countries that have flagged a trend towards increased commercialization of science and other activities in the region.

"Bio-prospecting could bring down the whole house of cards," Stevens told IPS.

The region contains many unique species of "extremophiles," creatures adapted to the extreme conditions there, says the UN University's report, 'The International Regime For Bio-prospecting: Existing Policies And Emerging Issues For Antarctica'.

Biotechnology companies in particular are scouring the area in hopes of finding organisms that will be the basis for new drugs, industrial compounds and other commercial applications, it says.

Already, some 92 patents referring to Antarctic organisms or to molecules extracted from them have been filed in the United States, and a further 62 in Europe.

Enzymes extracted from extremophiles in other regions have become multi-million-dollar products in laundry detergents. Another enzyme is the basis of the $300-million medical diagnosis and forensics industry.

The market for biotechnology enzymes derived from extremophiles is forecast to grow 15-20 percent a year, growth that is part of a larger trend, says the report.

Annual sales derived from traditional knowledge using genetic resources are three billion dollars for the cosmetic and personal care industry, $20 billion for the botanical medicine sector and $75 billion for the pharmaceutical industry.

Sixty-two per cent of cancer drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are of natural origin or modelled on natural products, adds the report.

For those reasons, companies are buying or purchasing licences to complete collections of biological materials from various past Antarctic expeditions.

And because research in the coldest, harshest region on the planet is extremely expensive, pharmaceutical companies find many scientists and institutions willing to sign over commercial licensing rights in exchange for funding.

A contract signed in 1995 between the University of Tasmania and Amrad Natural Products, an Australian company, gives Amrad the right to analyse Antarctic microbes to see if they could be used to develop new antibiotics or other pharmaceutical products.

European food giant Unilever has patented a protein taken from bacteria found in Antarctic lake sediments that could stop ice crystals building up in ice cream.

Should that protein become a billion-dollar product, it would create a nightmare scenario for the treaty system, says Stevens. "There's no way the ATS could withstand a commercial onslaught."

The system was specifically designed to exclude or restrict all commercial ventures, so that countries like Argentina and Britain would put aside any claims to Antarctic territory.

The system is widely considered the model of international cooperation. Treaties governing the deep sea floor, the moon and Mars, which will go into force in 2006, are all based on the ATS.

Johnston and Stevens agree that regulations are needed to control Antarctic bio-prospecting.

These rules would have to be carefully considered so that revenues and research information is shared amongst all treaty members without stifling commercial activities, according to the UN report.

But Stevens thinks bio-prospecting should never be commercialized in the Antarctic.

"How do you share the profits among the members?" he asks.

"It hasn't been possible to set up a system to share revenues for fishing in the region. Bio-prospecting would be even more difficult."

He says companies are welcome to look for the next important drug in Antarctic species, but that research cannot be proprietary. "It should be shared with the world," Stevens says.

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Albion Monitor February 2, 2004 (

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