Bio-Prospecting for Useful Products or Services from the Deep Sea


According to generally accepted definition provided by Donado & Zhang (2011), bio-prospecting is the search for natural compounds and biological materials in extreme or biodiversity-rich environments such as rain forests, volcanoes, hot springs, deep sea, etc. Researchers take samples of plants and microorganisms that are found in extreme and biodiversity-rich environments. Then, these samples are analyzed to detect useful chemical compounds and genetic materials for later retrieval and use (Donado & Zhang 2011). Bio-prospecting is not new. It started when early humans learned that one of the plant roots taste better than another, or that some plants could be used as medicine or cosmetics. Current paper discusses and illustrates advantageous features of a region for bio-prospecting, difficulties of such activity, examples that have been discovered to date, and potential for future work and discoveries in this area.

Advantageous features of the Region for Bio-prospecting

Depths of the ocean, especially such places as around seamounts, hydrothermal vents, methane seeps, and deep-water coral communities, are the biggest basin of global biodiversity-rich environment. The microorganisms that are found in isolated ecosystems and develop under extreme conditions provide ample opportunities for scientific discovery and commercialization (Arico & Salpin 2005). Bio-prospecting of genetic material is a growing industry that is becoming more accessible to business organizations as deep-water exploration is becoming more accessible to the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, cosmetics industries (Lohan & Johnston 2003). As bio-prospecting is the search for natural compounds and biological materials in extreme or biodiversity-rich environments (Donado & Zhang 2011), the major requirement for selecting area for exploration is that it should have extreme or biodiversity-rich environments. For example, the extreme conditions of Antarctica and the open sea, especially in the deep seabed, include extreme temperatures combined with extreme pressure, salinity, pH, and other unique terms. Such conditions are an absolute advantage of this region for bio-prospecting because they grant that there can be found only those organisms that have developed unique characteristics for survival. The biological processes and materials that enable these organisms (extremophiles) to survive in extreme and at the same time unique conditions provide huge potential for scientific advancements and commercial application. Marine bio-prospecting usually takes place in a unique area of the maximum possible depth of high seas, including the deep sea floor with its cold springs, seamounts, and hydrothermal vents. Thus, bio-prospecting in unique locations with extreme conditions requires careful preparation and planning of the whole process, especially considering the cost and importance of bio-prospecting expedition as a whole and the great value of the equipment in particular.

Process of bio-prospecting generally consists of four phases: on-site collection of samples; isolation, characterization and culture of specific compounds; screening for potential uses, such as pharmaceutical, cosmetics, etc.; and, product development and commercialization, including patenting, trials, sales and marketing (Slobodian, Kinna, Kambu & Ognibene n.d.)

Possible Difficulties for Bio-Prospecting

According to the definition of the Convention on Biological Diversity, bio-prospecting is the "the exploration of biodiversity for commercially valuable genetic and biochemical resources” (Torrance n.d.). However, the term bio-prospecting can change between countries. Some countries narrow the definition of bio-prospecting to include only the search of valuable genetic material while others broaden the definition to cover the discovery, research and application of genetic materials. Thus, commercial side of bio-prospecting and gaining potential profit make it very difficult to give a correct legal definition of bio-prospecting (Krattiger et al. 2007). Differences between legal definitions of marine scientific research and bio-prospecting across countries cause permanent disputes over property rights. Yet, the property rights arising from the expected future development of marine genetic resources that are discovered during scientific expeditions need to be agreed and regulated. Otherwise, disputes over property rights for new discoveries from bio-prospecting will prevent the development of the field.

Specifics of deep bio-prospecting determine the need to use equipment that can work in extreme conditions. Since such equipment is rather costly, it is yet another obstacle to the development of bio-prospecting in deep waters in particular and for bio-prospecting at all. Consequently, innovations in new technologies and equipment as well as modernization of the existing bio-technology of deep bio-prospecting are needed to reduce the cost of deep bio-prospecting expeditions.

Unfortunately, bio-prospecting can negatively affect sensitive ecosystems of deep waters and seabed. Prospecting of the deep seabed can negatively impact the ecosystem and survival of deep water organisms due to such factors as light, noise, and temperature variations. Also, the explored deep-water areas can be polluted in result of bio-prospecting processes and exploitation of equipment. For example, residues produced in the course of equipment operation may affect the ecosystems and endanger the existence of unique organisms.

Despite the immense costs that continue to pose a significant barrier to the deep-sea research and development, some individuals are now worried about the negative side effects that accompany deep bio-prospecting. Problematic issues related to bio-prospecting of deep sea biodiversity are conservation of deep sea biodiversity, protection of the environment, and sharing of benefits. Those problematic issues are now an important topic of discussion between lawyers, researchers, scientists, businessmen and politicians. Their goal is to develop international rules for the prevention of environmental and scientific tragedies without impeding new discoveries. However scientists continue to do a lot of work to make great discoveries in the depths of the oceans.

Examples of Bio-Prospecting Discoveries

The vast genetic wealth of the deep seas constantly attracts both businesses and academia. For many decades, the depth of the oceans has been of great interest to researchers due to huge potential of new discoveries as well as learning how life on the Earth emerged and how it develops in extreme conditions. Consequently, diversity of life and discoveries of unique organisms that are perfectly adapted to the lack of light, high pressure and other unusual conditions also lure researchers and agents of biotechnology companies in the ocean by the prospects to discover unknown genes, proteins and other compounds that may be used for scientific as well as commercial purposes.

Namely bio-prospecting allowed discovering of tubeworms (Riftia pachyptila Jones) at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean near the Galapagos Ridge at the East Pacific Rise off the coast of Mexico in 1977 during exploration of the ocean floor (Ruth 2006). These red-blooded organisms were discovered near the hydrothermal (hot water) ocean vents. The worms can grow up to five feet in length; they do not have the mouth and intestines, and consist of bird feathers structure containing more than 200,000 tiny tentacles. The troposome tissues of these worms have large number of symbiotic bacteria, which amount to more than 100 billion per ounce. These bacteria are internal power supply of this type of worm. Oxygen, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide from the water absorbed are transferred to the bacteria through the troposome tissue. In turn, from the obtained substances bacteria produce carbohydrates and proteins necessary for the growth of worms (Privett 2001).

As cited in Ruth (2006), “In the early 1980s, Karl Stetter, a microbiologist from the University of Regensburg, Germany, discovered a hyperthermophilic archaebacterium that flourishes near submarine vents at temperatures of about 100 °C. Stetter and his colleagues described another archaebacterium in 2002, termed Nanoarchaeum equitans. This organism is parasitic with an unusually small ribosomal RNA and now represents a new phylum in the bacterial world.” (para. 3).

Significant marine bio-prospecting discoveries are products of marine origin such as a family of antiviral drugs, including drugs for treatment of AIDS that were developed on arabinosides compounds which were extracted for more than forty years ago from the sponge Tethya Crypta. Also, numerous cosmetics were created in result of researching Bahamian soft corals (Pseudoterigorgia elisabethae) (Murti, Y, Agrawal, T. 2010). 

Potential for Future Work and Discoveries

The deep seabed bio-prospecting for genetic resources has to be considered within the broader context of the biotechnology sector. One of the major goals is creation of new products that will be based on the resources of nature, as well as consolidation of genomics to provide a framework for biotechnology and bio-products.

Industries that are somehow related to bio-prospecting include biotechnology, waste, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics. All these industries have a tendency to increase the use of biotechnologies to develop new products. The future development of bio-prospecting as part of the global biotechnology industry will have a major positive impact on the development of new technologies in health care. However, significant problem of settling all legal aspects relate to bio-prospecting needs to be considered and solved at the international level in the nearest future.

Use of information technology in our day is a prerequisite of any scientific and business branch. The development and use of modern information technologies for biodiversity research and its application have been realized in the emergence of biological informatics and its development.

 Undoubtedly, one of the main prospects in the development of bio-prospecting is such direction as space bio-prospecting. The objective of this research area is the study of cosmic bodies that have been delivered to the Earth by spacecrafts as well as those cosmic items that appeared on the planet naturally.

Development of new technologies such as genomics and combinatorial chemistry means that bio-prospecting can be substituted; but at the same time, they cannot decrease the value of researching biodiversity environment, which can be a source of raw materials for biotechnology.

Throughout the history of the mankind, bio-prospecting has been the main source of pharmaceuticals and agricultural products. Nowadays it is difficult to overestimate its importance; it remains a significant resource for production of drugs and various household items.

The main task of bio-prospecting is the development of new pharmaceutical, cosmetic, agricultural, and chemical products. Potentially, commercial bio-prospecting can create different new ecosystems. However, commercialization should not put a threat of extinction to existing ecosystems without which the existence of humanity itself may be endangered. Consequently, it should be noted that the impact of bio-prospecting on the environment needs to be minimal.

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