The hunt for Antarctic microbes and the technologies developed from them could turn into a 21st century gold rush without new international regulations, according to a UN report released today.
The 'International regime for bioprospecting' report called for new regulations to govern who benefited from bioprospecting in the icy continent.
Bioprospectors such as research institutions, universities and pharmaceutical companies, hope to find novel mechanisms that have allowed microbes to survive Antarctica's extremely cold and arid environment.
They hope that commercialising the extremophiles' genetic information will lead to new pharmaceuticals or industrial compounds.
But the report said that existing regulations did not cover who had the right to commercialise this information.
Without new regulations, Antarctica could be a free-for-all, the UN University Institute of Advanced Studies report said.
According to the report, bioprospecting could also be at odds with the notion of sharing knowledge gained in Antarctica, one of the requirements of the Antarctic Treaty System.
Article III of the treaty says that scientific observations and results from Antarctica should be exchanged and made freely available.
Dr Julia Jabour-Green, an Australian policy officer with the Cooperative Research Centre for Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems in Tasmania, said opinion was divided over whether Antarctica was owned by everybody or nobody.
"Because nobody owns these resources, they are open to appropriation by anybody," she said.
Regulations could change this, meaning researchers couldn't just share preliminary research and then get on with commercial development, she said. Any claims to genetic resources would have to go through some kind of regulatory process.
According to Jabour-Green, the Antarctic Treaty System was currently loosely interpreted, with little sharing of information once scientists were back in the lab. And researchers were free to find commercial applications for compounds isolated from Antarctic bugs without sharing the knowledge, she said.
"What happens downstream when companies invest in further research I think is a private arrangement between the companies and researchers.
"If you take an organism and research it in the lab and find it has a pharmaceutically active ingredient in it and patent the results of the research, you have already fulfilled your obligation to the [treaty]. You aren't obliged to tell the rest of the world about your research," Jabour-Green told ABC Science Online.
This prevented a conflict of interest between scientists engaged in publicly-funded research and privately-funded research looking at spin-off products created using genetic material found in Antarctic extremophiles, she said.
Commercial and scientific opportunities
Jabour-Green agreed that there was a fine line between commercial and scientific opportunities on Antarctica.
"I think the Antarctic treaty parties need to come to a firm policy about what that requirement to share knowledge actually means."
Because Antarctica was isolated, Jabour-Green said it was necessary to rely on researchers' good faith to respond to any future UN regulations. It was up to the government of any country that has scientists working in the Antarctica to police what their researchers do, she said.
"One of the very important things that happens as a result of bioprospecting or biodiscovery activities is we get to find out amazing things about sponges or bacteria, and that in itself adds to the body of knowledge about that species. That level of information must be preserved."