ROTHERA BASE, Antarctica (Reuters) - Fifty years into a treaty demanding all scientific findings on Antarctica be freely shared, governments are trying to end a dispute over a surge in company patents on life in the continent.
An increasing number of companies developing new products through biological discovery or “bioprospecting” are trying to file patents on Antarctic organisms or molecules for items from cosmetics to medicines, putting new strains on the treaty.
“Biology is going through a revolution ... it’s a tricky situation,” Jose Retamales, head of the Chilean Antarctic Institute, said of the lack of clear rules for prospecting for animals and plants on the continent.
Parties to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty plan to debate issues including bioprospecting at an annual meeting commemorating “50 years of peace and science” in the U.S. city of Baltimore from April 6-17. They have agreed to submit suggestions by February 20.
“We need to find out if it is a problem and if so, what is the problem,” said Johannes Huber, head of the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat in Buenos Aires. Governments “have not found a consensus,” he added.
The treaty setting the continent aside for peace and science was originally intended to defuse bigger conflicts over territorial claims during the Cold War, Retamales said.
“The world has changed. Now we are talking about different things -- things you do not even see.” The treaty forbids mining but permits other commercial uses of Antarctica. Bioprospecting is allowed, unless it has military goals.
Retamales and several other experts said a desire by companies for patents -- securing them exclusive commercial rights -- was often hard to square with goals of openness and shared science laid out in the 47-nation treaty.
The treaty says: “Scientific observations and results from Antarctica shall be exchanged and made freely available.” All plans for scientific programs should be exchanged in advance to ensure efficiency and economy, it adds.
Products derived from Antarctica include dietary supplements, anti-freeze proteins, anti-cancer drugs, enzymes and cosmetic creams. Advances in genetic technologies make Antarctic “bioprospecting” easier.
“Using genetic resources means very often that you are having an economic activity for a company,” said Yves Frenot, deputy head of the French Polar Institute. “That is difficult to reconcile with ... the Antarctic Treaty.”
“More and more companies are looking to Antarctica,” said Sam Johnston, a senior research fellow at the U.N. University’s (UNU) Institute of Advanced Studies.
“We expect this trend to accelerate,” he said. Antarctic organisms have evolved attractive characteristics for industry, such as conserving energy and surviving in a deep freeze.
Dozens of companies including consumer products groups Procter & Gamble and Unilever, French cosmetics group Clarins and Danish drugmaker Novo Nordisk are in a UNU database of almost 200 “bioprospecting” bodies.
Clarins, for instance, uses an algae -- Durvillea antarctica -- in a face cream, the database says. Unilever has a patent based on an anti-freeze protein in a bacteria found in an Antarctic lake that may help keep ice cream smooth.
Johnston said there were similar trends of more research into organisms found in the high seas and on the deep seabed, despite uncertainties about rights outside national waters. In Antarctica, all territorial claims are on hold under the treaty.
Coastal regions of Antarctica, like that around the British Rothera research station on the Antarctic Peninsula, teem with life, from penguins and whales to lichens and microbes.
“Our view is that we can’t patent organisms themselves but we can have patents on processes discovered in Antarctic organisms,” said Pete Convey, a Rothera station biologist.
Frenot said doubts about the treaty should not block a cancer treatment, for instance, found in an Antarctic creature or plant and patented after costly research by a company.
“It would be a pity not to use such resources, but there are no rules. We have to invent those rules,” he said.
Part of the attraction of Antarctica is that it separated from South America more than 30 million years ago and life has evolved with few outside influences.
“You’d have to go to Mars or perhaps another planet” to find species so different from those elsewhere in the world, said Retamales. Uncharted lakes beneath Antarctica’s ice sheets, such as Vostok Lake that Russia hopes to drill into, may contain even more exotic life forms.
Much current research involves studying cells, for instance of microbes found by a government scientific agency and later grown in a corporate laboratory far from the Antarctic. That means there are few expeditions that might harm the environment.
Johnston said there were worries -- but no evidence -- that corporate involvement might make researchers delay publication of key scientific findings until patent applications were filed.
He said one idea was to tax profits from Antarctic-based products and plough cash back into Antarctic science, with special help for poor countries. The United States and Japan seemed most reluctant to impose rules that would limit corporate access, he said.
Many Antarctic patents go beyond animals or plants. Norway’s Aker Biomarine, which produces a dietary supplement made from krill, has patents covering technology for processing the shrimp-like crustaceans that can quickly rot.
The patents “are not really relevant to scientific research under the Antarctic Treaty,” said spokesman Geir Arne Drangeid.
Editing by Tim Pearce and Sara Ledwith