The Pros and Cons of Bioprospecting Advances in deep-sea technology are making it easier to mine the genetic resources of the sea floor. Who stands to profit from such "bioprospecting" and how should it be regulated? Joe Palca leads a discussion on bioprospecting.
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The Pros and Cons of Bioprospecting

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The Pros and Cons of Bioprospecting

The Pros and Cons of Bioprospecting

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JOE PALCA, host:


Today, we're talking about oceans. Later in the hour, we'll be talking about the history of deep ocean exploration. We'll also be joined by someone who has been down to the bottom of the seafloor in Alvin, the submersible.

But first, oceans hold some surprising treasures. Take this example. There's a sea snail found in the South Pacific called Conus magus. The little critter makes a venom to paralyze its prey. Well, it turns out that the venom, in the proper dosage, is also a painkiller that's a thousand times more powerful than morphine. And last December, the Food and Drug Administration approved the drug Prialt. Prialt's a synthetic form of the cone snail venom, and it's used to treat severe chronic pain. Not many drugs have come from sea creatures, but that could change as technology for ocean exploration improves. Last month, the United Nations University issued a report warning that the genetic resources of the ocean need protection and that a legal framework needs to be established to regulate what the report refers to as bioprospecting in the deep ocean.

Joining me now to talk more about that is my guest. Dr. Julia Jabour is a lecturer at the Institute of Antarctic & Southern Ocean Studies. She's also the deputy program leader for policy at the Antarctic Climate & Ecosystem Cooperative Research Centre at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, Tasmania, in Australia.

Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Jabour.

Dr. JULIA JABOUR (Institute of Antarctic & Southern Ocean Studies): Good morning, or good afternoon, should I say, and thank you.

PALCA: Well, OK, we'll be US-centric and say good afternoon. But thanks very much for joining us.

If you'd like to get in on the conversation, I invite you to give us a call. Our number is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. If you want more information about what we'll be talking about this hour, go to our Web site at, where you'll find links to our topic. And of course our number here is (800) 989-8255.

Dr. Jabour, what does bioprospecting mean? What are people talking about?

Dr. JABOUR: Well, there doesn't seem to be a universally accepted definition of the term. And in fact, some scientists don't like that term at all. Essentially, what it means is the search for novel compounds or novel processes that might have a useful commercial application. Scientists like to call this activity biodiscovery because the term prospecting has connotations of, or relationships with, extracting things. And that's not necessarily what they're doing--not initially, anyway.

PALCA: So what are they doing?

Dr. JABOUR: Well, the scientists are taking samples--say, samples of seawater, mud or soil--and through a series of processes, they analyze what organisms are there, what the organisms do, what they contain, whether there's a process or a compound that can be further screened to see if there is something novel they can use, perhaps in the production of drugs or perhaps they have industrial applications.

PALCA: But what's the advantage of going into the oceans, the deep oceans or the shallow oceans, to look for this? I mean, wouldn't it be easier to collect things on earth, on dry land?

Dr. JABOUR: Yes, well, we do both of course. But the oceans have what the scientists call megabiodiversity, or lots and lots and lots of organisms and unknown numbers of organisms. So the chances of finding a bioactive compound is greater because you have a greater number of organisms. So you're maximizing how you spend your money in this bioprospecting industry or biodiscovery industry.

PALCA: So somebody goes out, they dredge along the bottom of the floor, they go to a reef in the ocean and they find some interesting sponge with an interesting biological property. Is this something they can, you know, patent and make money on?

Dr. JABOUR: Yes, most definitely. And that comes to the crux of the story. They have the rights to use the organisms, and they invest their money in screening and developing a product perhaps. And it's only right that they be rewarded for their effort. The issue comes down to one of, who owns those original resources in the first place?

PALCA: And who does?

Dr. JABOUR: Well, it depends where they're found, of course. If they're found in the land areas, then that country owns those resources. If they're found just off that country's coastline in the country's own maritime zone, then that particular country owns the resources. We get into difficulties when the compounds are taken from areas that lawyers call outside national jurisdiction, meaning the high seas. Or, in my case, my particular area of interest is Antarctica. And in that case, nobody owns those resources.

PALCA: So we talked about this United Nations University report saying there needs to be some form of protection. Who's going to do that?

Dr. JABOUR: Well, the international community needs to take responsibility. The international community has already done that, and there is a convention on biological diversity which gives governments assistance with how they should manage their own resources, gives them directions. And when a government signs on to this convention, it then can apply the rules within it. So governments maintain control over the plant and the animal, all of the genetic resources of their own country, and they remain able to control what their citizens do and what foreigners do with those resources. But there are no specific laws in place now to manage those resources in Antarctica or in the deep sea.

PALCA: It sounds like a bit of a muddle, actually.

Dr. JABOUR: Yes, it is. And I think that's the major concern from the UN University report and for those of us around the world who are studying these activities. It comes down to--it's an ethical question of who should benefit from the development of resources that are not owned by anybody.

PALCA: It is an interesting question. Well, let's see what our listeners have to say. And you're welcome to join us. Our number is (800) 989-8255. And let's go to Ash(ph), Ash in Columbus, Ohio.

ASH (Caller): Hello.

PALCA: Welcome to the program.

ASH: Hi, how are you?

PALCA: I'm good. How are you?

ASH: I'm fine. I have a question. I was wondering what are the advantages of screening the organic constituents of existing organisms for therapeutic compounds as opposed to, say, computationally scanning possible organic compounds? I'll take my answer off the air. Thanks.

PALCA: OK. Are you clear on that question, Dr. Jabour?

Dr. JABOUR: Yes, and I have absolutely no idea. I'm not a scientist. My area is law and policy. Look, one thing I can say about marine scientific research and, indeed, Antarctic research is that the science is useful in its own right as the science of inquiry. We would like to know what lives in the ocean; we would like to know what are those novel physiological adaptations that these organisms have made in order to allow them to live in cold, cold water, in the sea ice, in areas where there is a very low light level or high salinity--you know, very salty water. All of these organisms have made very special adaptations in order to live in extreme environments. So the science itself is extremely interesting and adds to our knowledge of how the world works. Whatever happens after that is something that we need to, I think, keep some kind of control over.

PALCA: Right. But is there--I mean, people tend to think, well, you know, the oceans don't belong to anybody, and if you find something, it should be shared by all. I guess that just isn't the kind of response that's going to spur companies to take the risk of developing products if they find something useful.

Dr. JABOUR: That's absolutely right. There are two sides to the question: common heritage, which is what you've just described, and reward for effort. If I'm a fisherman and I have the money to run a distant water fishing operation and I go out into the high seas--let's assume it's not regulated by a regional organization--I go and I catch fish and I come back and I sell those fish on the open market, and I am rewarded for the effort and the investment that I made. So fish are traditionally open-access resources.

You could also argue that the other biological resources in the ocean should be the same, that you should be rewarded for the effort of capturing them or whatever you're doing with them. The other side of the coin is that this world doesn't have an equal distribution of capacity. So we need to think about all mankind benefitting from how we use these resources.

PALCA: Is there a model for that kind of sharing that's worked in another context that you think might be applied to the oceans?

Dr. JABOUR: Yes. And in fact, the model comes from the deep seabed. There is an overarching piece of international law for the sea, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the seabed resources to be regulated--or, sorry, the use of those resources is to be regulated by a special part of that piece of international law so that all mankind benefits from the mining of the minerals in the deep seabed. So you could look at that as a model for how to manage the living resources in the water above the seabed in a very similar way and redistributing the wealth that comes from mining those resources.

PALCA: And is there any indication that--you know, are there any countries that are sticking at that possibility or people sort of think that might work?

Dr. JABOUR: There's a number of schools of thought about whether it will work and how it will work. I must say that the law has been very slow in developing in regard to these open-access resources. But I think we're safe for a while because the technology is not developing very quickly, either. It's very expensive to develop any of these resources from the deep sea or from extreme environments like Antarctica. And...

PALCA: Dr. Jabour, I asked you an open-ended question, but unfortunately we don't have a lot of time for you to answer it. So I'm going to have to stop you there. But thank you very much for joining us and explaining some of this.

Dr. JABOUR: It was my pleasure. Thank you.

PALCA: Dr. Julia Jabour is the deputy program leader for the policy in the Antarctic Climate & Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, Tasmania.

When we come back, more on exploring the deep oceans. Stay with us.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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