Biological Prospecting

Biological prospecting is taking place in Antarctica and along with the growing number of US and European patents for Antarctic life forms may become a threat towards the fragile ecosystem and the organisms that live in Antarctica’s terrestrial, marine and inland water biomes.

Background

What exactly is biological prospecting? Essentially, biological prospecting or bioprospecting is the use of native organisms from a natural habitat in commercial products ranging from pharmaceutical / medical technologies to cosmetics and personal care.

Biological prospecting in Antarctica is a complex issue that encompasses scientific and commercial interests, environmental concerns, ethics and equity, and considerations relating to international law and policy, including the adequacy of the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) to fully be able to address bioprospecting and regulate it. Bioprospecting and scientific research can become intertwined making it difficult to regulate and control.

The US Patent Office database already contains hundreds of references to Antarctica, as does the European Patent Office. Examples of patents that have already been given include:

  • In 2002, Spain granted a patent for a glycoprotein extracted from an Antarctic bacteria, for use in wound healing and treating skin, hair and nails.
  • In 2002, an extract from an Antarctic green algae was patented in Germany for use in cosmetic skin treatment.
  • In 1997, a patent was granted by the Russian patent office for an extract of a strain of Antarctic black yeast to produce biologically active substances with anti-tumor properties.
  • An application to the US Patent Office covers a process for producing anti-freeze chemicals discovered in Antarctic bacteria, to increase the shelf life of foods.

According to the United Nations University- Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS) Antarctic organisms could be used for a whole range of products. For example glycoprotein may increase the tolerance of commercial plants to freezing, extend the shelf-life of frozen food, improve cryosurgery or enhance the preservation of transplant tissue. According to UNU-IAS’s latest survey, more than one-third of the products and patents utilizing Antarctic organisms are krill-based.

One of the biggest controversies is whether companies and governments should be able to profit from Antarctic species. Antarctica is set aside under the Environment Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty as a protected area dedicated to open science and environmental protection. Allowing a free-for-all on biological prospecting is inconsistent with those values and would allow some countries and companies with an unfair advantage to profit off of Antarctica’s fragile ecosystem.

Overshadowing science

ASOC fears that allowing a commercial biological prospecting industry to develop without a regulatory framework will undermine one of the most important aspects of the ATS: sharing all scientific information freely. ASOC’s main concerns are about the consequences of commercial sensitivity for scientific cooperation, and the capacity of the ATS to manage the industry. ASOC also questions the legal basis upon which a state grants bioprospecting rights (and any subsequent patents or other intellectual property rights) in an area of contested sovereignty, which in functional terms is a global commons.

ASOC recommends the application of the Precautionary Principle to the issue of bioprospecting. The Antarctic Treaty System should establish a formal mechanism for dealing with potential commercial bioprospecting issues before conflict arises and not after the fact. And the ATS shouldn't wait until bioprospecting has a negative impact on ecosystems, but act to ensure that those wishing to conduct bioprospecting activities prove that they will not harm the Antarctic environment.

Not all bioprospecting is the same. Discussions at the ATCM drew distinctions between the impacts of large-scale harvesting of valuable organisms and the negligible impacts of small samples that are removed from the Antarctic so that the biochemical properties can be identified and synthesized outside the Antarctic. ASOC believes that this is an important distinction. However small populations of some organisms could still be adversely affected even by small-scale sampling – Antarctic ecosystems are extremely fragile and recover slowly from disturbances.

ASOC supports Resolution 7 adopted at the ATCM in 2005 that recommends that parties that governments draw to the attention their national Antarctic programs and other research institutes engaged in Antarctic biological prospecting activities the provisions of Article III (1) of the Antarctic Treaty. ASOC hopes that governments continue to keep under review the question of biological prospecting in the Antarctic Treaty Area and exchange on an annual basis information and views relating to that question as appropriate.