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Who will own deep-sea life?

Hard-to-reach marine creatures may be raw material for new products.

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Ever since humans' early ancestors first shucked shellfish along the southern coast of France 300,000 years ago, food has been the measure of the bounty of the sea.

These days, however, the notion of that bounty is expanding. Increasingly, it includes genetic building blocks cradled in unique deep-sea creatures who thrive under conditions once thought impossible for sustaining life.

But as biotech companies begin to eye these organisms as a potential mother lode of raw material for medicines and other products, calls are emerging for rules of the road to help ensure that the benefits of deep-sea gene prospecting are shared globally.

Admittedly, most biotech and pharmaceutical companies are not yet rushing to hydrothermal vents, sea mounts, and other unique habitats to scoop up organisms and figure out if they can be useful. The vast majority of marine bioprospecting these days is done in shallower waters within a country's 200-mile limit, notes Sam Johnston, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies of United Nations University, based in Japan.

Yet as marine scientists learn more about deep-sea habitats and the variety of organisms that live there, commercial interest is likely to grow. Moving now on some sort of regulatory scheme is a chance to get ahead of the curve, he says. And it would provide an antidote to regulatory uncertainty, which is preventing some companies and research groups from pursuing deep-sea bioprospecting more vigorously.

"We have a window of opportunity," says Dr. Johnston, who coauthored a UN report on the issue that was released last week. "The issues are much easier to deal with before commercial interests become heavily vested" in the hunt for deep-sea genetic material.

The issue carries echoes of debates over mining minerals, such as manganese, in the deep ocean, which formed part of the backdrop for the international Law of the Sea Treaty in 1982.

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