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Up for Grabs
Determining whether researchers and biotech companies should be allowed to search for marketable products on the frigid continent is a hot debate.

Antarctica, South Pole Station.
Commander John Bortniak, NOAA Corps

In February 2008 a group of researchers led by David Barnes, of the British Antarctic Survey, boarded the RRS James Clark Ross and headed for Antarctica’s Amundsen Sea to conduct the region’s first sweeping biological survey. The BAS, a branch of Britain’s Natural Environment Research Council, has been studying Antarctica for more than 60 years. Barnes’s team trawled the ocean floor for large creatures like sea stars, collected tiny bottom organisms with an epibenthic sledge (a steel-framed net), and sank a special metal bucket into seafloor sediments to capture microscopic worms. Researchers also disembarked on an unnamed island to collect lichen and bits of moss.

Barnes’s Antarctic surveying expedition was aimed at documenting new species and learning more about the Antarctic ecosystem. But new life unearthed during scientific expeditions like this don’t appeal just to biologists; such discoveries are also ogled by bioprospectors, or researchers and biotech companies searching for organisms they can turn into marketable products.

While reefs and forests have long drawn bioprospectors, national laws and the Convention on Biological Diversity, an international treaty that regulates biological resources, provide a legal framework for many of these ventures. Antarctica, however, is governed by a lean international treaty with no guidelines or even language on bioprospecting—the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), a global pact that dates back to 1959 and forbids military operations, nuclear explosions, radioactive waste dumping, and claims of sovereignty on the continent. The ATS also promotes a free exchange of science and ideas and annual meetings among the now 47 member nations, which include the United States, China, Venezuela, and South Africa. The members must ensure that any new endeavor doesn’t compromise the ATS or other applicable international treaties.

Activities that turn a profit are allowed in Antarctica and the surrounding waters—millions of tons of fish are caught each year, for instance, and nearly 50,000 tourists visited last season—but there are no guidelines on how commerce in the region relates to bioprospecting. One reason is because classifying bioprospecting is difficult. “Some people call it science; others see it as a commercial activity,” says Michelle Rogan-Finnemore, an Antarctica policy expert at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury.

Closeup view of Don Juan Pond, Antarctica.
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio, Landsat 7 Project Science Office; MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Further hampering the development of a bioprospecting protocol for Antarctica are the claims that seven nations—New Zealand, Australia, France, Norway, the United Kingdom, Argentina, and Chile—staked on portions of the continent prior to the 1959 treaty. Some claims overlap, such as those of the United Kingdom, Argentina, and Chile, each of which declared jurisdiction over the Antarctic Peninsula. When the treaty was first crafted, the desire to establish Antarctica as a peaceful continent quickly sidelined discussions on claims. The conflict has never been resolved, but with potentially vast amounts of money on the line, the topic is ripe. “No money has been made to date, and future profits are not possible to predict,” said Sam Johnston, a biotechnology expert with United Nations University, in Tokyo, in an email. “But big-money sectors, such as the pharmaceutical sector, are examining Antarctic organisms, and if they find something big, then the profits will run into the billons of dollars.”

For Barnes, the knowledge gained by his research outweighs concerns about profit biotech companies may spin from it down the line. “The information can be used by bioprospectors,” says Barnes, “but the other side of the coin is that it can also be used by politicians and scientists interested in the polar regions. This for me is much more urgent, because the Antarctic Peninsula is the fastest-warming place on the planet.”

Biotech companies don’t necessarily have to rely on biologists and oceanographers to gather material that will benefit commercial enterprises. For example, ZyGEM, a New Zealand-based biotech corporation, and Unilever, a European corporation that markets health and hygiene products, have begun sending their own bioprospectors to the bottom of the globe. Indeed, there are more than 250 bioprospecting projects currently under way in Antarctica, according to data collected by United Nations University —and those don’t include voyages like Barnes’s, which are aimed at pure research but whose finds could later end up in the hands of bioprospectors. (Great Britain isn’t the only country trawling. Last year the Japanese surveyed the Cosmonaut Sea, and the Germans probed the Weddell Sea. A team of Italians and New Zealanders investigated the Ross Sea.)

Many bioprospecting projects in Antarctica are global efforts that jibe with the communal spirit of the ATS, says Alan Hemmings, a senior fellow in Antarctica governance and environmental policy at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. This is illustrated in the case of Deschampsia antarctica, one of two species of flowering plants in Antarctica and the only type of grass found on the continent. The genus occurs around the world, but several nations have shown interest in the Antarctic variety, which grows despite extreme cold and prolonged darkness. Genes from this species could help enhance the productivity of grasses that grow in other extreme environments, such as high in the Andes or Rocky Mountains, thereby providing food for cattle pastured in those areas.

This past April bioprospecting received significant attention at the annual ATS meeting, in Baltimore. The topic was the subject of the most research paper submissions—even more than tourism, says Rogan-Finnemore. The ATS member nations agreed that bioprospecting was an important issue that demanded more discussion, and they will hold meetings throughout the year on the topic in order to move the dialogue along before the next ATS meeting. “The critical thing is there was agreement that Antarctic Treaty parties should continue to discuss bioprospecting,” says Rogan-Finnemore.

Hemmings agrees that treaty members face an enormous challenge in regulating bioprospecting. “The question for them is, can you do it without damaging the environment and without causing unhealthy competition?” he says. “Because now another researcher is your commercial rival, and not just some guy doing interesting science.”

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