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UN report: Accelerate global agreement to oversee exploitation of South Pole 'extremophiles'

The embargo on this press release has changed since it was originally posted on EurekAlert!.

Work should be stepped up on international agreements to oversee prospecting efforts in Antarctica by research institutions, universities and pharmaceutical companies to discover and stake ownership to promising organisms and compounds with genetic properties that make survival possible in extremely cold, arid and salty conditions, says a new UN University report.

Bioprospectors are starting to turn their attention to many of the world's last frontiers, such as hydrothermal vents, the deep seabed, the water column of the high seas and polar ice caps. Indeed, according to the report, these frontiers have the potential to create a 21st Century "gold rush" with bioprospectors trying to find and exploit the unique genetic and biochemical riches of "extremophiles," organisms that have evolved unique characteristics to survive in Earth's most hostile environments.

Many scientists believe that isolating and extracting the substances that allow these organisms to prosper could have enormous implications in biotechnology research, possibly leading to new cancer treatment drugs, antibiotics and industrial compounds.

But in fragile Antarctica this optimism is offset by warnings of significant consequences if an unregulated international "free-for-all" is allowed to develop.

"Biological prospecting for extremophiles is already occurring and is certain to accelerate in Antarctica and the southern oceans," said Dr. A.H. Zakri, Director of UNU's Institute of Advanced Studies, the Tokyo-based research center that conducted the study.

"This report suggests that efforts to exploit this new frontier are now threatening to outpace the capacity of national and international law to regulate such things as ownership of genetic materials, the issuing of patents on products that may arise from them, and the potential environmen
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Contact: Terry Collins
collins1@sympatico.ca
416-538-8712
United Nations University
1-Feb-2004


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