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Boston 2002 Saturday, 16 February, 2002, 04:00 GMT
The dangers of bio-prospecting
AAAS Boston 2002, BBC
Amos

As scientists scour our planet for previously undescribed and exotic lifeforms, they are acutely aware of the health dangers they could also be digging up.

Probably less than one percent of all the microbes on Earth have been categorised by science, and some of the as yet unidentified species could show us how to tap new energy sources and make novel drugs.

But it is also likely that many of these simple organisms - were they ever to come into contact with large numbers of people - could trigger the emergence of new infectious diseases.

"It's not so much that we are worried that a devil is going to emerge from the bowels of the Earth, but there is no need to take the chance," said Professor Abigail Salyers, the current president of the American Society of Microbiology.

She was making her comments at a symposium sponsored by the society at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.

Out of this world

"We must accept the fact that we don't know how many microbes in nature really are capable of causing disease in humans. We thought we knew - but we don't. We don't even know what 99.8% of the organisms are."

The issue is a pertinent one because of the growing interest in extremophiles, the microbes that can live in extraordinary environments that many thought, just a few years ago, would be utterly lifeless.

Scientists are now finding bugs in hydrothermal vents on the deep-ocean floor, in the dry deserts of Antarctica and in rocks and springs hundreds of metres below the surface of the Earth.

These amazing organisms have fundamentally different metabolisms, "breathing" not oxygen but hydrogen, methane, and compounds of sulphur. They can withstand extremes of temperature, radiation, salinity, and metal toxicity.

Scientists think the microbes will tell us about how life first formed on the Earth and how it might now thrive on other planets, perhaps even in our own Solar System. They could also yield novel technologies and drugs.

Martian bugs

"There are all sorts of chemical processes that we're discovering, things that the chemists told us were impossible but that we now know micro-organisms are doing," Professor Salyers said.

But the question arises and needs seriously to be addressed about what impact these new organisms could have on our health.

"We are still not sure when and under what conditions micro-organisms evolve the capacity to cause disease," said Professor Salyers.

"So, instead of cavalierly introducing these microbes into the human sphere, scientists have now become very sensitive and are handling their samples very carefully."

She said some consideration was also now being given to how rock samples that might harbour alien microbial life could be returned from Mars in a secure way.

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Professor Abigail Salyers
I think the risks are minimal
See also:

16 Jan 02 | Science/Nature
02 Oct 00 | Science/Nature
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