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UN Report Calls for Global Agreement to Protect Antarctica from 'Bio-Prospectors' - 2004-02-11

The earth's south polar region is already protected from exploitation by wildlife hunters and oil and mineral prospectors. Now a United Nations report is calling for a new global agreement to protect Antarctica from so-called "bio-prospectors." The U.N. study says Antarctica's fragile ecosystem is being threatened by researchers and industrial scientists who have been studying and collecting the continent's unique biological organisms.

Antarctica is a frozen wilderness, a kind of global park with unexplored genetic riches. The Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959, recognized the region as a special territory for peace and science, to be governed internationally.

The new U.N. report says that status is threatened by the drive to discover and harvest new organisms. Sam Johnston is a senior research scientist with United Nations University and lead author of the report. He says many scientists fear commercial activity in Antarctica could compromise the open research community.

"A hallmark of Antarctic scientific research has been cooperation and transparency," he said. "There has been a much greater sharing down in Antarctica than in anywhere else. That has been a great tradition down there and a great tradition of Antarctic work, and there's feeling among the scientists that the rise of commercial interests in the research down there that will inhibit that."

The U.N. study focuses on extremophiles, those organisms that thrive in Antarctica's arid, perpetually frozen environment.

"They can be microbes or plants or animals," Mr. Johnston said. "In Antarctica you will find all of those that have adapted to the harsh environment because all of Antarctica is very harsh. And those adaptations, be they physiological or biochemical can not be found anywhere else in the world because that environment is not found anywhere else in the world."

Take, for example, glycoprotein, a kind of natural antifreeze found in some Antarctic fish. Researchers believe that understanding how the protein works could lead to new drugs and industrial compounds. Potential applications include extending the shelf life of frozen food, improving farm-fish production in cold climates and advancing surgery involving the freezing of tissues. More than 150 patents concerning Antarctic resources have either been issued or are pending in the U.S. and European patent offices. The U.N. report suggests that accelerating efforts to exploit Antarctica's bio-resources threaten to outpace laws to protect them. Lead author Sam Johnston says rules must be put into place to prevent "an unregulated free-for-all" - as the report puts it - "as national research institutions, universities and pharmaceutical companies race to discover and establish ownership of promising organisms and compounds."

"Whereby companies knew where they could get permits, how they could obtain proper use and acquire proper ownership of the resources they are taking from Antarctica," he explained. "And then once they have started to use those resources and are down the path of commercializing those resources, what their obligations would be going into the future. Maybe they would have to share some sort of financial benefit or maybe they have to share some short of technological benefit deriving from the research."

Sam Johnston wants to get the rules right. He says decisions to regulate bio-resources in Antarctica could set a precedent that could protect other new frontiers, on earth and beyond.

"Especially as we talk about opening up the moon and space in the way President Bush as been [talking] over the last few weeks, and how we deal with these international spaces needs to be thought about carefully," continued Mr. Johnston. "And, I think that Antarctica is a wonderful success story on how the international community has come together to deal with an international space and dealt with it fairly, equitably and effectively."

The U.N. report on Antarctica was released just prior to a meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia of the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity (February 9-20), which will be attended by thousands of government officials and experts from around the world.