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Biological prospecting, or bioprospecting, is generally defined as the search for chemical and genetic materials from living resources, including plants, animals and microorganisms, which may be commercially promising.

The Antarctic constitutes almost nine per cent of the world's land area. The organisms which survive here and in the Southern Ocean are among the most highly adapted animals on Earth, making it an important location for bioprospectors. Chemicals derived from Antarctic living resources are already the basis of patents for pharmaceutical products and food products - for example, a compound that makes ice cream smoother.

Although bioprospecting has occurred in the Antarctic for many years, none of the Antarctic Treaty System legal instruments specifically mention bioprospecting. Even the Environmental Protocol to the treaty, adopted as recently as 1991, does not mention the activity. However, the Protocol applies to all human activity in the Antarctic region and so it provides some level of protection to the environment from any bioprospecting activities.

The Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR) noted as early as 1999 that there had already been collections of microorganisms in Antarctica for pharmaceutical purposes and that a biological prospecting interest was 'developing rapidly' (SCAR 1999). But it was not until the XXV Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) in Warsaw, Poland, in September 2002, that bioprospecting appeared as an issue for discussion and as the subject of specific papers (ATCM 2004a and b).

While no substantive discussions on bioprospecting took place at ATCM 2004 held in South Africa in May, one UNEP information paper examined industrial involvement in Antarctic bioprospecting (ATCM 2004a). Bioprospecting is on the Agenda for the upcoming 2005 ATCM.

Interest in bioprospecting is putting pressure on the Antarctic Treaty System to develop robust policy and guidelines on the activity. These may include issues such as access to Antarctic living resources and benefit-sharing from any product or process deriving from living resources. If the level of bioprospecting increases significantly, then continuing protection of Antarctic and Southern Ocean ecosystems may provide a challenge to the strict provisions of the Environmental Protocol.

Figure 1: Projections of the September Arctic sea ice extent over this century

The images show the average of the projections from five climatic models.


Source: ACIA 2004

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