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Last Updated: Monday, 2 February, 2004, 02:52 GMT
Antarctica's resources 'at risk'
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

Researchers' field camp and aircraft   British Antarctic Survey
Research relies now on cooperation
Antarctic organisms face an onslaught by prospectors anxious to exploit their unique nature, the United Nations says.

The UN University says "extremophiles", creatures adapted to life in the polar wastes, are being relentlessly hunted in what is virtually a new gold rush.

A successful search could uncover new drugs, industrial compounds and some commercial applications, the UN says.

It says the existing Antarctic Treaty System cannot adequately regulate the possible consequences to Antarctica.

The UN University's report, The International Regime For Bioprospecting: Existing Policies And Emerging Issues For Antarctica, is published by its Institute of Advanced Studies, based in Tokyo, Japan.

Survival mysteries

The publication comes a week before the start of a meeting on 9 February of the UN's Convention on Biological Diversity in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The search for extremophiles threatens the hallmarks of Antarctic scientific research, its transparency and cooperation
Sam Johnston, UN University
Extremophiles comprise principally bacteria, which have the remarkable ability to thrive in conditions that would be hazardous to other lifeforms - extremes of temperature, radiation, salinity, and metal toxicity.

These organisms, which have fundamentally different metabolisms to normal microbes, are found in hydrothermal vents on the deep-ocean floor and in rocks and springs hundreds of metres below the surface of the Earth.

Understanding their biology may lead scientists to tap new energy sources and make novel drugs.

But it is the race to find and exploit the microbes that can survive in the very cold, dry or salty conditions of Antarctica that is raising particular concern for the UN University.

Its report says the search to unlock the secrets of these lifeforms' success could be a repeat of the 19th Century's gold rush, a free-for-all to find and patent new cancer treatments, antibiotics and industrial products.

Dr A H Zakri, the institute's director, said: "Biological prospecting for extremophiles is already occurring and is certain to accelerate in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.

"This report suggests that efforts to exploit this new frontier are now threatening to outpace the capacity of national and international law to regulate... ownership of genetic materials, the issuing of patents... and the potential environmental consequences of harvesting these resources."

However, it is not just bacteria that are being targeted. Higher lifeforms are being investigated, too.

One promising discovery is a glycoprotein which prevents Antarctic fish from freezing. It could help fish farmers, extend the shelf life of frozen food, improve surgery and tissue transplants, and make plants more tolerant of freezing.

Other Antarctic discoveries include an extract from green algae for use in cosmetic skin treatment, and anti-tumour properties in a strain of yeast.

New era of competition

The report says Antarctic bioprospecting so far has usually been the work of consortia of public and private bodies, like universities and pharmaceutical companies.

It says: "This has made it difficult to draw a clear line between scientific research and commercial activities."

Sam Johnston, the report's co-author, says the Antarctic Treaty System, the main international agreement governing activity on the continent, does not specifically regulate bioprospecting.

He told BBC News Online: "The search for extremophiles threatens the hallmarks of Antarctic scientific research, its transparency and cooperation.

"We're not saying there's much danger of environmental damage, but it does pose a challenge.

"It's likely to inhibit scientists in the future, and companies will be less interested in working in the Antarctic because there won't be any clarity over who owns what."

All images copyright and courtesy of the British Antarctic Survey.

The BBC's Fergus Walsh
"The Antarctic is teaming with microscopic life"

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