Plants, animals, fungi and bacteria on Earth have provided a rich haul of biological products for human society. Aspirin, the cancer drug Taxol and the anti-malarial artemisinin are among the physician’s naturally derived armoury.
With many land-based ecosystems well explored, attention is increasingly turning offshore. Scientists have begun literally to trawl the ocean1 for microbes of interest, hoping for eventual deployment in medicine, remediation or nanotechnology. With emerging technology able to decode a small genome in minutes2, genetic information is a new target3.
Under UNCLOS, extraction of minerals found on or beneath the seabed is comprehensively regulated, and proceeds are to be shared4 with the aim of aiding development. No such benefit-sharing requirement exists for anything taken from the water column.
Another emerging issue for the global ocean is geoengineering, proposed as a ‘technical fix’ against climate change. About 12 large-scale scientific experiments have already taken place, mainly in the Southern Ocean, using iron to fertilise plankton growth, which increases carbon uptake from the atmosphere. Deployment is banned, and research restricted, by agreements under the London Convention5 and the Convention on Biological Diversity6, but those restrictions have not proven binding on all7. Iron fertilisation might or might not work as a climate fix8; but it has the potential to affect ocean health, not least because absorbing more CO2 in seawater may increase the pace of acidification9.
Other ocean geoengineering approaches, such as using flotillas of giant tubes across the tropics to increase water mixing and thus CO2 uptake10, or deliberately increasing cloud cover11, have also been proposed. At some point, the case for deploying them may come to be seen as compelling. If that happened now, they would be launching into a regulatory vacuum.
This would also be the case if renewable energy technologies such as Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC)12, a concept that exploits the temperature difference between various layers of water, were developed or even researched at scale in the open ocean. And it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that wind and wave energy schemes will one day be found in the high seas; already, 125km offshore is considered viable13. Currently, there is no legal framework to determine issues such as liability or equity in high seas areas.
“If you ever make it to the sea, and you swallow a mouthful of seawater, keep in mind that each millilitre has about a million bacteria in it, and on the order of ten million viruses. The experiments are incredibly simple; we just take seawater and we filter it, and we collect different size organisms on different filters, and then take their DNA back to our lab in Rockville, where we can sequence a hundred million letter of the genetic code every 24 hours. From one site, from one barrel of seawater, we discovered 1.3 million new genes and as many as 50,000 new species.” J Craig Venter, genomics pioneer, on the Sorcerer II expedition14