This article is adapted from an excerpt by Kirsten E. Zewers from her paper, "Bright future for marine genetic resources, bleak future for settlement of ownership rights: reflections on the United Nations Law of the Sea consultative process on marine genetic resources, June, 2007."1 Kirsten Zewers is a former WIPO intern, currently studying law at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Many miles beneath the water's surface, a range of unique organisms have adapted to withstand the extreme pressure, temperature and toxicity of their surroundings, giving these organisms extraordinary properties unlike any terrestrial life forms. Recent technological advances have created unprecedented scope for exploration of the deep sea bed, and for research into the genetic material derived from the organisms which inhabit it. New discoveries are revealing their invaluable potential for biotechnological and pharmaceutical applications. This in turn has sparked debate about the extent of ownership rights or sovereignty over these genetic resources and the patentability of inventions derived from them.. These issues were the focus of negotiations at the United Nations Informal Consultative Process on the Oceans and the Law of the Sea (UNICPOLOS) in June 2007.
Most of the organisms from which these new marine genetic resources derive are found near hydrothermal vents – or "black smokers" – on the deep sea bed. These areas are highly volatile, associated with tectonic and volcanic activity that constantly reform the sea floor. Extreme changes in temperature (up to 400° C), pressure and hydrothermal fluid create difficult environments for sustainable life. Yet many organisms have adapted to such demands by converting hydrothermal vent fluid into useful chemical energy; a characteristic that makes marine genetic resources of particular value, especially in combating human diseases.
A number of marine genetic resources already collected, examined, and cultured, show great promise for application in pharmaceuticals, bio-remediation (e.g. the use of organic matter to clean hazardous waste spills) and cosmetics. Proteins coded by DNA and RNA derivatives extracted from marine genetic resources have, for example, been found to have therapeutic uses, including antioxidant, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, antibiotic properties, as well as specific activity against HIV, some forms of cancer, tuberculosis and malaria. However, the development of new pharmaceuticals is an uncertain, lengthy and expensive process, often spanning many years and costing millions. So far, less than 1 percent of marine genetic resource derivatives have succeeded in reaching the final stage of clinical trials.2 Yet the ratio of potentially useful natural compounds has been found to be significantly higher in marine organisms than in land organisms, and the success rate regarding the development...