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Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The Evolving Promise of Marine Biotechnology

Plenary Four: The Evolving Promise of Marine Biotechnology

Blog from Global Forum On Biotechnology - The Evolving Promise Of The Life Sciences

The fourth session of the The Evolving Promise of the Life Sciences Global Forum focused on both the potential and challenges presented by biotechnology from the marine environment.

As session chair Steiner Bergseth – Research Council of Norway - noted in his introductory remarks that whilst marine biotechnology may not yet be in the mainstream, it offers significant promise in terms of delivery of new medicines, novel compounds, food production, and biofuels.  Ninety per cent of the global biosphere is marine, but remains largely unexplored, so may well contain organisms that could be the “engine” to drive advances in biotech.  However, future exploitation of the marine environment needs to be undertaken both sustainably and equitably. 

Rachel Ritchie – University of British Columbia, Canada – further set the scene by providing more detail on the promise of marine biotechnology – which can be defined as “the use of marine organisms as a source or target of biotech”.  The promise of marine biotech covers almost every imaginable field, potentially offering solutions to global grand challenges including: health; food; sustainable energy; industrial products; and tools to manage and protect the ocean’s resources.

Historically, the start of marine biotech can be traced back to the isolation of pharmacologically active compounds the 1950s, Dr Ritchie indicated.  Over time – thanks to developments in chemistry and molecular biology – a significant number of potentially therapeutic compounds had been isolated from marine species, but to date only seven of these have been licensed.  Whilst the there are a large number of compounds “in the pipeline” – indicating significant future potential – marine pharmaceutical has yet to fulfil its early promise.

Yet marine biotech is by no means confined to pharmaceuticals.  The 1980s witnessed the beginning of the search for other functional compounds from marine species, resulting, for example, in the isolation – from a bacterium found in hydrothermal vents - of a thermally stable DNA polymerase that was named Molecule of the Year in 1989.  Thanks to Whole genome sequencing and metagenomics of marine DNA during the 2000s the search for novel compounds from the marine environment has been taken to a new level.  A recent survey of the Sargasso Sea, for example, has identified 1.2 million previously unknown genes, many of which may hold the potential for the creation of novel chemical processes and new bioactive products.

Marine biotech is also playing an increasingly important role in consolidating the productivity and sustainability of existing marine industries, such as aquaculture.  This sector has previously encountered issues relating to the excessive use of antibiotics and non-sustainable food sources, but Dr Ritchie indicated that these are increasingly being addressed through the use of “molecular” aquaculture.  The production of algal-biomass has also been identified as having significant promise for the development of biofuels, with algae having many advantages – such as low lignin and high oil content – in comparison to terrestrial plants.  Marine biotech is being used to optimise algal strains, and synbio technologies are improving extraction of algal-derived fuels.

Rachel Ritchie concluded her presentation by identifying that the promise in marine biotech may be driven by improvements in science and technology but this can only be fully realised by sound policy and investment.

The need for and application of a sound policy and regulatory framework to regulate the exploitation of marine bio-resources was an area covered by the next speakers in the marine biotech session.

First was Lyle Glowka – Senior Legal Advisor the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).  This near universally-accepted international convention provides a framework for access to genetic resources in both marine and terrestrial environments.  It has three main objectives: conservation; sustainable use; and benefit sharing from the use of genetic resources.

Given that considerable marine genetic resources exist within the territorial waters of developing nations, the CBD is crucial in ensuring that access to such resources results in a fair and equitable sharing of the benefits from this process between those who “own” the resource and those leading on its exploitation (i.e. often organisations from more developed nations).  Equally importantly, the CBD ensures that benefits resulting from the exploitation of marine genetic resources are directed back to the providers of the resource for the purposes of biodiversity conservation.

Despite the framework the CBD provides for the equitable sharing of benefits from marine genetic resources, a number of outstanding areas have been identified – particularly in relation to ensuring benefit sharing continues once genetic materials leave the country of origin, and how to respond to “bio-piracy”.  It is hoped these issues will be addressed by the 2010 Nagoya Protocol – when this enters into force.  This focuses on ensuring that benefits resulting not just from the exploitation of genetic resources, but also their utilisation – e.g. when they used to produce new substances or biotech processes – are shared equitably, and such sharing is appropriately enforced.

Following on was David Leary from the Faculty of Law, University of Technology, Sydney.  Dr Leary’s expertise lies with the legal framework governing the exploitation of marine genetic resources outside national jurisdiction.  Within the high sea and sea bed area (called the area) that exists beyond national territorial limits, essentially the Convention on Biodiversity (identified above) has no meaningful effect.  This means that the exploitation of genetic resources in international waters is effectively taking place in a “legal vacuum”.

This begs the question as to whether there is a need to apply a legal regime – similar to CBD – to regulate benefit sharing of marine genetic resources potentially being exploited in international waters.  This debate has been ongoing in a number of international forums.  Dr Leary’s perspective is that very little evidence exists to suggest that there is currently any significant prospecting and development of marine biotech from organisms sourced outside national territorial limits. 

Whilst it has been speculated that there may be significant potential for marine biotech in non-territorial waters, this is largely based on assessments of the biotech potential for marine areas under national control, and is potentially influenced by the very wide definition of what constitutes “marine biotech”.  Policymakers may not appreciate how quickly technology relating to marine biotechnology is developing.

In conclusion, David Leary indicated that questions relating to: the number of marine biotech products that have been, or are under development; the way in which marine biotech is being progressed; and the potential costs and profits relating to marine biotech, needed to be answered in order to inform the development the governance of this area of biotech exploitation  in international waters.

The final presentation during the marine biotech session came from Kattia Rosales Ovares, from the National Biodiversity Institute of Costa Rica.  This illustrated how Costa Rica had established a legal framework to regulate benefit sharing resulting from bio-prospecting.  Established in 1989, this legal framework regulates the use, management, associated knowledge, and fair share of costs and benefits derived from the use of biodiversity elements.

The Costa Rican approach to formalising,, through legal agreement, benefit sharing from bio-prospecting contributes to conservation through up-front payments, milestones and royalties, technology transfer and training of Costa Rican scientists.  To date, this collaborative approach to bio-prospecting has lead to the development of a number of biotech products derived from Costa Rica’s marine organisms.

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