The icy, windswept stretches of Antarctica, the most pristine environment on Earth, is at risk of being spoilt by a "21st century gold rush" as biotechnology companies seek to exploit its extraordinary natural resources, scientists claimed this weekend.
The extreme environment of the polar continent makes it especially appealing for biotechnology companies. Organisms that thrive in the frozen soils and surrounding waters do so because they have developed unique biological coping strategies. If researchers can unravel the secrets of life in a cold climate, the financial rewards could be huge.
Scientists have already discovered fish that survive Antarctic waters by producing their own "anti-freeze." The molecule has now been patented and could be used commercially to protect frozen food, or keep ice cream soft in freezers. Other organisms, including "extremophiles" which flourish in the harshest environments on Earth, are believed to have unique enzymes that could revolutionize industrial processes or lead to new antibiotics.
According to researchers at the UN university in Tokyo, interest from biotechnology companies in Antarctica's biological riches is growing. Already, some 92 patents referring to Antarctic organisms or molecules extracted from them have been filed in the US, and a further 62 patents have been filed in Europe.
The problem, according to a report by Hamid Zakri and Sam Johnston at the university's Institute of Advanced Studies, is that, although commercial activities such as mining and tourism are banned or regulated, there is nothing to stop biotech companies going into Antarctica and hunting or "bioprospecting" for potentially lucrative organisms.
"If bioprospecting is done properly, it can be useful and beneficial for all and can have a minimum impact on the environment, but you want it to be controlled to prevent companies from causing significant environmental damage or disrupting the scientific operations down there," Johnston said. "It's a pristine, global park and it needs to be preserved."
Agreeing rules for companies keen to work in Antarctica is fraught with difficulties. Antarctica has long been used by scientists and international agreements such as the Antarctic Treaty ensure scientific knowledge is made freely available to all.
Commercial exploitation is against the spirit, if not the letter, of the treaty. While few scientists believe the threat to Antarctica is imminent, things could change drastically in the next 10 years. "It's similar to the old American gold rush in California. If someone finds a hint of something down there, everyone else will rush in," said Kevin Bowers, an expert in Antarctic microbes at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute. "If there are no controls in place, there's nothing to stop them."
But the line between scientific research and commercial activity is already blurred. A contract signed in 1995 between the University of Tasmania and Amrad Natural Products, an Australian pharmaceutical company, gives Amrad the right to analyse Antarctic microbes to see if they could be used to develop new antibiotics or other pharmaceutical products.
The food giant Unilever, meanwhile, has patented a protein taken from a bacterium found in Antarctic lake sediments that could stop ice crystals building up in ice cream. The Antarctic Treaty group's advisory body, the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, raised concerns about bioprospecting in a recent report.
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