Scientists have recently discovered new microbial organisms containing previously unknown genes and proteins.
These microscopic organisms could be used to create new medicines, industrial solvents, chemical treatments, and much more, but there is concern about ecological damage that could arise from the exploitation of these new resources.
So far, only a few drugs created from marine sources have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, but over 1,000 new ones are in pre-clinical testing stages.
“The potential for marine biotechnology is almost infinite,” said Curtis Suttle, professor of earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences at the University of British Columbia. “It has become clear that most of the biological and genetic diversity on Earth is – by far – tied up in marine ecosystems, and in particular in their microbial components. By weight, more than 95% of all living organisms found in the oceans are microbial. This is an incredible resource.”
Scientists note that a race to exploit these resources could damage and even destroy some habitats, like hydrothermal vents.
In addition to concerns about the marine world, many worry about developing nations who could be exploited by western chemical companies if rich marine life is found in their waters.
“We have controls for regulating the exploitation of animals, plants and microbes on land, but regulating them at sea is going to be much more difficult,” said Professor Steve Yearley, head of the UK Economic and Social Research Council genomics forum. “We cannot stop pirates off Somalia, so how is someone supposed to protect rare sponges that they find in their coastal waters?”
“We are struggling to develop the right techniques to isolate and understand the marvels we are finding in the waters around the planet,” said Yearley. “Once we have done that, then we will have a much better idea just what we are looking at and just how careful we need to be when it comes to ensuring this resource is protected for the future.”
To learn more:
- Check out this article from the Guardian: Marine ‘treasure trove’ could bring revolution in medicine and industry
Copyright © 2012 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.