Frozen assets: The Antarctic’s booming bioindustry

Why cashing in on the region’s species richness is such a complicated business.

Writer: Charlotte Getz
Editor: Maria Stoica
Artist: Aisha Aminu


The marbling Antarctic desert imposes a glassy reflection in the expanse of white sky above. It’s a scene of serenity, only disturbed by one small hut standing solitary against harsh winds. This little building shelters a six-metre deep diving hole used by scientists collecting marine samples. The warmth of the temporary base – which bears more likeness to a port-a-loo than a research facility – is actually a relative luxury for the divers. But what great impetus impels them to endure the tribulations of working in this inhospitable and lonely continent?

Whilst the pursuit of knowledge does indeed take scientists far and wide, money often proves to be an effective additional motivator. Thousands of researchers have taken up residency in the South Pole and are now on the hunt for a hidden treasure trove of biomolecules, which prove valuable for industry. This search for commericalisible compounds is termed ‘bioprospecting’.

The unique extremities of the Antarctic environment gives the region a special allure to bioprospectors. With temperatures plummeting to -90°C plus high UV-radiation, only organisms that employ atypical adaptations can survive. Secreted compounds – which either defend against pathogens or kill competing organisms – are thought to hold particular industrial importance. Scientists have purified totally novel compounds from every sample, despite only having ventured into Western Antarctica. The diversity of metabolites is suspected to result from biological promiscuity amongst species, since Whole Genome Sequencing indicates high levels of horizontal gene transfer. 

Bioprospecting may mark a new epoch of scientific industrialisation in the Antarctic. One success story is the isolation of proteases from local krill. Cold-adapted enzymes like these have an increased catalytic rate, meaning that lower and safer concentrations are effective in medical applications. Patenting the enzyme now gives the owners exclusive rights to the biomolecule for twenty years – in exchange for public disclosure about how to use it. 

Criticism of the patent system has been intensifying since the 1800s, when the great Victorian engineer Isembard Kingdom Brunel described it as “immense evil”. Pharmaceutical patents have been met with particularly strong opposition as many drugs have become too expensive for patients. But financial incentives are necessary to drive discovery – and this need is exacerbated in Antarctica, where research is especially costly. Increasingly, scientists face a burgeoning economic pressure to fund their research. In the UK, the requirement for work to deliver “demonstrable benefits to the economy” is even embedded in the government’s Research Excellence Framework.

Contention surrounding patents strikes the very core of the Antarctic Treaty’s remit. Firstly, it poses a tricky question about sovereignty within the region. Fifty-three states jointly govern the continent and each have differing domestic patent laws, which significantly complicates profit sharing. Secondly, the commercial nature of bioprospecting could undermine scientific collaboration; an ethos which is enforced in legislature by the Antarctic Treaty. However, the current system requires patent documents to be published upon application and some argue that this practice allows for dissemination of information.

Perhaps the most poignant concern surrounds the environment, which many fear could be irreversibly degraded as collateral damage of escalating activity in the region. From crabs clinging onto ship hulls to rats hiding in cosy research stations – could scientific presence really pose a threat? It appears that bioprospecting itself causes minimal damage, since just a teaspoon of soil is needed for “proof of concept” during patent applications. 

In fact, bioprospecting could instead offer a truly clean method of industrialising Antarctica. Currently the region has a GDP per capita of just above one dollar, compared to the UK’s $36,600. Now, an emerging bioprospecting economy could yield the money needed to drive sustainability efforts. There is universal recognition that preservation of this unique ecosystem is in both environmentalists’ and biologists’ interests.  But to ensure it is practiced sustainably, a framework for bioprospecting must be written into the Antarctic Treaty. Recent amendments to comparable laws about the conservation of krill required several years of discussion before reaching any consensus. Evidently in Antarctica – with fifty-three countries sitting at the negotiating table – legislative change moves at a truly glacial pace.

Anti-melanoma drug

Extracted from the body tissue of tunicate, Palmerolide exhibits highly-targeted potency against melanoma. Named after Palmer Station where the discovery was made, this chemical is active against skin cancer at concentrations low enough to leave normal cells unharmed.

MRSA antibiotic

Darwinolide is a chemical isolated from the marine sponge Dendrilla membranosa. Promising tests on MRSA biofilm indicates it eliminates over 98% of the bacterium in a highly selective manner. An unusual central ring structure allows it to penetrate into cells, eliciting strong bioactivity.

Blood transfusion preservative

Molecules found in the blood of Antarctic notothenioid fish can bind to small ice crystals and inhibit their growth. Unilever currently use these anti-freeze glycoproteins to make creamy, low fat ice cream. In the future, these glycoproteins could potentially be exploited to dramatically lengthen the life-span of blood transfusions.  

Renewable energy chemical

The future of low-cost solar energy could be facilitated by the discovery of pigments in psychotolerant bacteria. These carotenoids display a unique UV-resistance mechanism which could make them effective photosensitizers in Dye Sensitized Solar Cells.

Sources

Núñez-Montero, K and Barrientos, L. (2018).c7 (90), p1 – p23.

Hughes, K and Bridge, P. (2010). Potential impacts of Antarctic bioprospecting and associated commercial activities upon Antarctic science and scientists. Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics. 10 (13 – 18 ), p13 – p17.

Nicol, D. (2004). Antarctic bioprospecting, benefit sharing and cooperation in Antarctic science. Australian Antarctic Magazine. 6.

Pillion, D. (2019). UAB researchers look to Antarctica for the next big drug discovery. Available:https://www.al.com/news/birmingham/2016/12/uab_researchers_antarctica.html. Last accessed 16th Feb 2020.

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