Marine genetic resources: immense biotechnology potential for Mediterranean nations
24 October 2008, CIESM News
The vast chemical diversity of the oceans, revealed in full by recent screening molecular tools1, opens new, exciting scenarios for research at the interface between science and business. Since much of sea life, particularly in deep waters, is yet untapped2, marine (or “Blue”) Biotechnology is a fast emerging sector, focused on exploiting ocean diversity for industrial / medical purposes.
As pointed out in a Report on Maritime Policy prepared by the Mediterranean Science Commission (CIESM) to the European Commission3, the Mediterranean Sea offers unique opportunities for major advances in Blue Biotechnology. To quote directly from this Report: “Because of its complex history (Messininian Salinity crisis, sapropel anoxic episodes, etc) and of its complex structure (deep sea hypersaline basins, seamounts, mud volcanoes, canyons, methane seepages, hydrothermal vents), the Mediterranean Sea provides a complex mosaic of very unusual, often extreme habitats. These marine systems, which are easily accessible from our shores, harbour poorly known biological communities, with hundreds of species yet to discover. Which means new genes, new molecules, new enzymes, with metabolic features of great industrial interest”.
To highlight such points and to pave the way for concrete international collaborations, CIESM joined and hosted last week in Monaco the US-EC Task Force on biotechnology4. This forum5 gathered some 40 international experts from both academic and private sectors, including researchers from both northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean who took an active part in the discussions.
The Expert group discussed the main remaining gaps in knowledge in marine microbial biodiversity and its associated genomic- and chemo-diversities of biotechnological interest. One of the main recommendations was to develop new functional analyses (coupling different technologies) to decipher the molecular adaptation of microbes to their environment and to build capacities in bioinformatics to tackle the integration of massive amount of data generated by the blooming marine genomics sector.
CIESM is keenly aware of the specific issues associated with the development of blue biotechnology in the region: these range from pioneering research to question on how to share fairly the expected benefits that will originate from new genes, new metabolic processes etc. The right to explore and exploit such natural resources within the confine of 200-mile “exclusive economic zones” is a particularly sensitive issue.
The CIESM-NSF/EU Workshop recognized the need for increased expertise in such questions in order to facilitate trustful international collaborations based on equitable shares in the benefits. A major challenge is to see patent systems take responsibility for ensuring that benefits are shared fairly. Experts proposed different options:
(i) to grant patents based on biological resources only if a royalty is paid into a global common trust fund;
(ii) to have coastal states allowing full research on their genetic resources with the proviso that exploitation of any commercial application is subject to further negotiation.
• See Report