Tag Archives: marine genetic resources

New Drugs: Animals Stuck to the Seabed

Biologists are working with engineers to develop new tools to accelerate the development of medicines derived from marine animals, focusing on ocean-going robots with onboard DNA-sequencing gear. They foresee fleets of autonomous submersible robots trolling the ocean like electronic bloodhounds to sniff out snippets of the animals’ DNA in seawater—and then gathering and analyzing this so-called environmental DNA, or eDNA.

“The ultimate goal is an underwater vehicle that collects environmental DNA samples, sequences them and then sends the data back to the lab,” says Kobun Truelove, senior research technician at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. “We would like to set up a network where you would have these autonomous vehicles out there sampling and then basically be getting the data back in real time.”

More than 1,000 marine-organism-derived compounds have shown anticancer, antiviral, antifungal or anti-inflammatory activity in medical assays, according to a database compiled by the Midwestern University Department of Marine Pharmacology. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved 15 drugs derived from marine organisms, including ones for chronic pain and high cholesterol. Another 29 marine animal-derived compounds are now in clinical trials, according to the database.

Marine invertebrates are a key target of biomedical research because the animals—mostly attached to the seabed and unable to move—have evolved sophisticated chemical defenses to fend off fish, turtles and other predators in their environment. Research has shown that the natural toxins that comprise these defenses can be toxic to cancer cells and human pathogens. These sea creatures “make a broad range of different chemistries, things that synthetic chemists never thought of making,” says Barry O’Keefe, who have also identified compounds produced by bacteria living symbiotically with marine invertebrates. Once scientists have a suitable sample of eDNA and it’s been sequenced, they say, they can identify compounds the organisms are capable of producing. Then researchers can synthesize the compounds and test them to see if they have medicinal properties…

Collection of eDNA promises to be faster and less costly than the complex method commonly used   collect marine specimens—one that Amy Wright, director of the natural products group at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, likens to a treasure hunt. Currently, research vessels on weekslong expeditions launch submersible vehicles equipped with clawlike grabbers and suction tubes for gathering specimens. Once the vehicles and their payload are back on the ships, researchers preserve them and deliver them to labs, where their genomes are sequenced. The entire process can take weeks and is expensive. Just paying the crew to operate a research vessel for a single day can cost $35,000, according to the National Science Foundation.

Excerpts from  Eric Niile, Finding New Drugs From the Deep Sea via ‘eDNA’, WSJ, Sept. 3, 2022

Who Owns the Genes in the Seas?

It’s an eye-catching statistic: A single company, the multinational chemical giant BASF, owns nearly half of the patents issued on 13,000 DNA sequences from marine organisms. That number is now helping fuel high-stakes global negotiations on a contentious question: how to fairly regulate the growing exploitation of genes collected in the open ocean, beyond any nation’s jurisdiction.

The negotiations that took place at the UN in September 2018 aim, inter alia, to replace today’s free-for-all scramble for marine genetic resources with a more orderly and perhaps more just regime.  Many developed nations and industry groups are adamant that any new rules should not complicate efforts to discover and patent marine genes that may help create better chemicals, cosmetics, and crops. But many developing nations want rules that will ensure they, too, share in any benefits. Scientists are also watching. A regulatory regime that is too burdensome could have “a negative impact” on scientists engaged in “noncommercial ocean research,” warns Robert Blasiak, a marine policy specialist at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.  It is not the first time nations have wrangled over how to share genetic resources. Under another U.N. pact, the 2010 Nagoya Protocol, 105 countries have agreed to rules to prevent so-called biopiracy: the removal of biological resources—such as plant or animal DNA—from a nation’s habitats without proper permission or compensation.

Those rules don’t apply in international waters, which begin 200 nautical miles from shore and are attracting growing interest from researchers and companies searching for valuable genes. The first patent on DNA from a marine organism was granted in 1988 for a sequence from the European eel, which spends part of its life in freshwater. Since then, more than 300 companies, universities, and others have laid claim to sequences from 862 marine species, a team led by Blasiak reported in June in Science Advances. Extremophiles have been especially prized. Genes from worms found in deep-sea hydrothermal vents, for example, encode polymers used in cosmetics. And BASF has patented other worm DNA that the company believes could help improve crop yields. The conglomerate, based in Ludwigshafen, Germany, says it found most of its 5700 sequences in public databases…

It may take years for nations to agree on a marine biodiversity treaty; [A]n “ideological divide” between developing and developed countries has, so far, “led to stalemate” on how to handle marine genetic resources, says Harriet Harden-Davies, a policy expert at the University of Wollongong in Australia.

Most developing nations want to expand the “common heritage” philosophy embedded in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which declares that resources found on or under the seabed, such as minerals, are the “common heritage of mankind.” Applying that principle to genetic resources would promote “solidarity in the preservation and conservation of a good we all share,” South Africa’s negotiating team said in a recent statement. Under such an approach, those who profit from marine genes could, for example, pay into a global fund that would be used to compensate other nations for the use of shared resources, possibly supporting scientific training or conservation.

But developed nations including the United States, Russia, and Japan oppose extending the “common heritage” language, fearing burdensome and unworkable regulations. They argue access to high seas genes should be guaranteed to all nations under the principle of the “freedom of the high seas,” also enshrined in the Law of the Sea. That approach essentially amounts to finders keepers, although countries traditionally have balanced unfettered access with other principles, such as the value of conservation, in developing rules for shipping, fishing, and research in international waters.

The European Union and other parties want to sidestep the debate and seek a middle ground. One influential proposal would allow nations to prospect for high seas genes, but require that they publish the sequences they uncover. Companies could also choose to keep sequences private temporarily, in order to be able to patent them, if they contribute to an international fund that would support marine research by poorer nations. “Researchers all around the world should be put all on a level playing field,” says Arianna Broggiato, a Brussels-based legal adviser for the consultancy eCoast, who co-authored a paper on the concept this year in The International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law.

Exceprts from Eli Kintisch U.N. tackles gene prospecting on the high seas, Science, Sept. 7, 2018