On thin ice: how the quest for a billion-dollar microbe is running out of control in Earth's last wilderness

Click to follow

The United Nations warns today of the dangers posed by biotechnology companies scrambling to turn Antarctica's microscopic life forms into the raw material for a billion-dollar industry making everything from detergents to cancer treatments.

It declares that a 21st-century gold rush is threatening to plunder the planet's last wilderness for its "extremophiles" - bacteria, fungi and algae - that thrive in the frozen wastes.

The UN study warns that if unchecked, the bioprospectors' activities could turn into an unregulated free-for-all, undermining the potential human benefits of the Antarctic's unique flora and fauna.

Researchers from the Institute of Advanced Studies in Tokyo found that there were vigorous attempts to control intellectual property rights on inventions resulting from Antarctic exploration.

They found 62 patents in the European Patent Office that had relied to some extent on Antarctic wildlife, and a further 300 references and 92 applications referring to the Antarctic in the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Recent examples included a Spanish patent for a protein extracted from an Antarctic bacteria that was allegedly able to treat damaged hair, skin and nails as well as having a wound-healing property.

Another skin treatment derived from a green alga found in the Antarctic had been patented in Germany, and the Russian patent office had registered a product with anti-cancer properties that had been extracted from the Antarctic black yeast.

It is not just Antarctic microbes that have generated new products. Scientists have isolated antifreeze proteins from the great Antarctic cod which prevent the cods' blood from freezing. The protein could be used commercially for anything from ice-cream to organ transplants.

But the search for life at the ends of the earth threatens to undermine the international rules on intellectual property rights, and could pose a threat to the fragile environment of the Antarctic, according to Hamid Zakri, an academic with the United Nations University.

"Biological prospecting for extremophiles is already occurring and is certain to accelerate in Antarctica and the southern oceans," said Dr Zakri, who is the director of the institute which carried out the study. "This report suggests that efforts to exploit this new frontier are now threatening to outpace the capacity of national and international law to regulate such things as ownership of genetic materials, the issuing of patents on products that may arise from them and the potential environmental consequences of harvesting these resources."

Part of the problem is that nobody owns the genetic resources of the Antarctic. Sam Johnston, one of the authors of the UN report, said that this meant that the more ethical companies felt they could not assert their intellectual property rights with government agencies. "The concern we have is that there's an issue of equity - the benefits of these resources are not being distributed fairly," he said. "Unlike the open sea, which is seen as international territory, the Antarctic is neither international territory nor is it clearly within national jurisdiction.

"The governments who are active in Antarctica need to develop a protocol that assesses the genetic resources and the costs of exploiting them." Although the Antarctic Treaty System is designed to protect the region's environment, the treaty does not directly regulate bioprospecting activities, Dr Johnston said.

The report says that bioprospecting has usually been done by consortiums composed of private and public bodies, such as universities and government research institutes. This has made it difficult to draw a distinct line between scientific research and commercial activities, although it is clear that a lot of the recent activity has led to commercial applications.

Financial gain is a motive for much of the search for new microbes with unusual properties. The UN estimates that the combined market for products derived from genetic resources in the cosmetics and drug industry is worth up to $100bn (£58bn). "Sixty-two per cent of cancer drugs approved by the US Food and Drug Administration are of natural origin or modelled on natural products," the report says. "A consequence of this trend is that naturally occurring genetic resources and biochemical processes will most likely receive greater attention from the private sector. In other words, based on the global biotechnology trends, it can be assumed that bioprospecting is likely to increase."

Extremophiles living at the edges of the habitable environment are a natural target for biotechnology companiesbecause the microbes haveadapted through millions of years of evolution to life at freezing temperatures, intense aridity, acidity or high salt concentrations.

The report says: "The application of extremophiles in industrial processes ranges from their use in liposomes [fatty particles] for drug delivery and cosmetics, waste treatment, molecular biology to the food industry. The greatest commercial impact so far has been made by enzymes from extremophiles ... due to the species' robust nature, the enzymes can be exposed to harsh conditions such as bleach chemicals and high temperature, and have been successfully used as protein degrading additives in detergents."

But Professor David Walton of the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge said that only a few companies were pursuing the idea of biprospecting in Antarctica and that the search for microbes with unusual properties had been carefully controlled.

He said: "As with all BAS Antarctic field programmes, this work is subject to environmental assessment before it can proceed. The amounts of material needed for such analyses are so small that sampling causes no significant impacts."

Hans van Ginkel, rector of the UN University, said that although bioprospecting globally had experienced a recent downturn, there was evidence that the commercial use of extremophiles would increase in the near future.

He said: "The world must be better prepared for this, especially with respect to the Antarctic. Many issues need to be resolved in advance of the further exploitation of genetic resources at the pole."


Thermus aquaticus

Springs or geysers, right, welling up from hot volcanic sources have generated commercially important extremophiles. The best-known is Thermus aquaticus, a bacterium that can live at temperatures exceeding 70C. Scientists have isolated a heat-stable enzyme called DNA polymerase from this microbe which is at the heart of the multimillion-pound PCR (polymer- case chain reaction) test used in medicine and forensic science. The PCR test is used to boost minute samples of DNA, left, to quantities that can be further analysed and is used by forensic scientists in conjunction with genetic fingerprinting to identify tiny tissue samples at scenes of crime. The Californian Kary Mullis won a Nobel prize in 1993 for the PCR test.

Streptococcus bacteria

High salt concentrations, or low and high acidity, are examples of life at the extreme. In 1998, the American biotechnology company Genencor isolated an enzyme from the highly alkaline environment of Lake Nakuru in Kenya, asoda lake. The microbe, right, belonging to the Streptococcus family of bacteria, had evolved to survive the extreme environment of the lake's mud flats. The enzyme proved to be highly effective in treating new denim jeans to produce a worn, stone-washed look and is now used extensively. The enzyme is sold as a product called Puradex. Soda lakes around the world are the subject of intense scrutiny by companies looking for other new microbes with unusual properties.

Antarctic cod

Many of the fish that live in the Antarctic have "antifreeze" in their blood systems to prevent ice crystals from forming in the sub-zero temperatures. One such anti-freeze chemical is a glycoprotein identified in the Antarctic cod, right, and other fish of the southern oceans. Scientists are working with this glycoprotein to develop products for a range of applications such as improving the freeze-tolerance of commercial plants to make them frost resistant, improving the production of fish-farming in cold climates, extending the shelf-life for frozen food such as ice-cream, and improving surgical techniques involving the transplanting of frozen organs and tissues.