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Sea of miracles: industrial uses for ocean biodiversity

The seafloor is our planet’s most biodiverse realm. It is in the sea that life on earth began over 3.5 billion years ago. It is in the sea where 34 of the 36 known phyla of animals remain to this day…

What’s out there? We know next to nothing about the amazing chemistry and compounds produced in the deep sea. Tim Donnelly

The seafloor is our planet’s most biodiverse realm. It is in the sea that life on earth began over 3.5 billion years ago. It is in the sea where 34 of the 36 known phyla of animals remain to this day, 15 of which are exclusive to the world’s oceans. And it is in the sea where myriad opportunities await.

The commercial potential of marine biodiversity is changing as technology evolves and we seek new services from our oceans beyond the current focus on food and energy supply and tourism. One new frontier lies in the novel biological systems and chemical pathways developed by marine creatures to survive extreme physical environments and ruthless biological competition in the ocean.

“Biodiscovery” is the search for these attributes so they can be developed as new products, including pharmaceuticals, agrichemicals, tools for environmental remediation, or more efficient and less polluting industrial processes.

Biodiscovery is inherently sustainable. Only tiny amounts of natural material are needed for most screening programs, and once an attribute is ready for large-scale market supply, commercial realities require development of a reliable non-wild source, such as synthesis or aquaculture. And in the process, biodiscovery collections have contributed enormously to knowledge of biodiversity, and therefore the capacity to manage it for the future.

This deep-sea amphipod crustacean was found in the ocean off Australia: who knows what else lurks in the depths? AAP Image/Queensland Brain Institute

Marine biodiversity and its extraordinary arsenal of metabolic machinery remains a relatively untapped source of raw materials. In an era of increased antibiotic drug resistance and new diseases needing novel therapeutics, this is good news.

This potential has been widely recognised for some time. But biodiscovery has struggled with a number of impediments including global uncertainty over legal and jurisdictional issues around access to biota and benefit sharing.

This uncertainty and its contribution to a global downturn in biodiscovery effort was caused by the advent of an international treaty designed, at least in part, to do the opposite. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which was opened for signature at the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, tried to address “biopiracy” concerns — the disconnect between countries where biodiverse genetic resources occur, and countries with the capacity to translate this into commercial outcomes. Besides being an environmental treaty to address global biodiversity loss; the CBD also deals with trade, development and intellectual property rights issues.

Prior to this convention, the world’s biodiversity was the common heritage of mankind. The CBD provided the legal basis for countries to claim sovereignty over the biodiversity and genetic resources within their jurisdictional limits, and the right to control access to it. In return, parties to the convention committed to conserve and use their biodiversity sustainably, facilitate access to genetic resources and ensure equitable sharing of benefits arising from their use.

Over the past 20 years, this has proven to be easier said than done. Researchers and industry executives seeking access to biodiversity were often faced with excessive negotiation and transaction costs and legally uncertain commercialisation rights – both disincentives to investment, while parties to the CBD were locked in exhaustive international negotiations about how to achieve effective access and benefit sharing.

A major breakthrough occurred in 2010 with consensus and adoption of the Nagoya Protocol - a supplimentary and legally binding protocol to the CBD. It provides a framework for transparent, cross-boundary and legally certain access and benefit sharing.

Reefs contain many mysteries and hidden opportunities. AlKok/Flickr

Legal status and jurisdictional issues aside, just how big is this biodiscovery opportunity? The truthful answer: we don’t know exactly, but it’s big — very big.

There has been 250 years of taxonomic classification, including the recent ten-year Census of Marine Life, in which 2700 scientists from 80 countries worked together. However, it’s predicted that only 9% of an estimated 2.2 million marine animal and plant species have been described, along with 18 million different forms of marine microbial life.

Such estimates are set to climb as new technology is developed to make them. Voyages of discovery are yet to be undertaken to remote regions or previously inaccessible habitats using new equipment; opportunities will emerge to revisit familiar waters with new sampling tools; and our microbial knowledge is expanding hugely alongside advances in gene sequencing.

However, biodiscovery opportunity is much more than a simple match against an inventory of genetic resources. Rather, it is the potential of species present. Many of the most bioactive and interesting compounds are produced by immobile organisms - such as sponges - when they need to ward off predators, protect reproductive products, repel pathogens, or poison a neighbour. Organisms only invest energy to produce biological activity when such investment brings sufficient ecological dividends of increased fitness and survival.

Preserving the world’s biodiscovery potential for the future therefore needs much more than the conservation of one undescribed species or another. It needs conservation of whole ecosystems as entities that represent glorious complexities. The challenges to realising this potential are significant and real, but our very survival may well depend on meeting them.