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Looking for new compounds in sea is endangering ecosystem

BMJ 2005; 330 doi: (Published 09 June 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;330:1350
  1. Andrew Cole
  1. London

    The growing popularity of deep sea exploration for new products by drug companies and others is putting fragile marine ecosystems in serious danger, warns a new report. The report by the United Nations University's Institute for Advanced Studies calls for stricter regulations to govern the exploration and exploitation of the world's deep sea beds.

    Although marine “bioprospecting”—the search for new genetic compounds—is still in its relative infancy, most large drug companies have marine biology departments and the financial benefits are proving considerable. The annual profits from a sea sponge compound used to treat herpes, for example, are between $50m and $100m (£27m and £55m; €41m and €81m), and cancer fighting agents derived from marine organisms are worth $1bn.

    Marine derived drugs can also be used as antioxidant, antifungal, anti-HIV, antibiotic, antituberculosis, and antimalaria treatments. In addition, applications for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease, cystic fibrosis, and impotence are already under consideration.

    Given that more potentially useful natural compounds are found in marine than land based organisms, the report suggests that deep sea research is set to expand. But it warns that if this continues unchecked it could place at risk many of the world's most fragile and vital ecosystems.

    “While it is impossible to quantify the damage caused by such research on the deep seabed environment, threats include destruction of habitats, unsustainable collection, alteration of local hydrological and environmental conditions, and pollution of various nature,” the report says.

    One particular concern is that because some of the compounds being investigated are unique, researchers will be tempted to harvest them rather than leaving them in their natural habitat. That could have a big impact on the long term viability of the site, said Sam Johnston, contributing author and senior research fellow at the institute.

    The current legal and policy framework governing marine exploration “is not even close to keeping pace with the fast evolving science and technology of deep sea bed bioprospecting,” he said. “At the moment it's a free for all. We are saying it's in everybody's interests to set some ground rules.”

    The present uncertainty about the legal status of deep sea research could also threaten future pharmaceutical investment, he suggested, “Companies are not going to invest billions in research if they are not certain they have the title to the resulting work.”

    A spokesman for the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry emphasised that any bioprospecting should be done responsibly. “Most of our companies have codes of conduct for the collection of natural sources on the land and we wouldn't expect standards to drop for collection from marine resources.” The pharmaceutical sector would be “only too happy” to talk about clarifying the legal status of research in this area.

    The report, Bioprospecting of Genetic Resources in the Deep Seabed is available at

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