Marine genetic resources

Basket star colony 928m Norwegian SeaThe astonishing variety of life forms in the deep ocean, from microbes to fish, and their adaptations to high pressure and very low, or very high, temperatures, provide a bewildering array of choices for modern pharmaceutical, biotechnological and biomimetic markets.  The continual change in species with increasing depth, each adapted to its own particular temperature and pressure regime, leads to a wide variety of forms and physiologies.

Unique genetic resources will be found in all deep-sea hotspot ecosystems, including hydrothermal vents, cold seeps, hadal trenches, deep-water corals,  sponge aggregations, oxygen minimum zones, methane hydrates, polar seas, and the surfaces of mineral deposits. It covers a wide variety of animals from microbes to all classes of invertebrates, and from bathyal and abyssal depths.  Species may also be restricted to specific biogeographic provinces and to specific depths.  The vast epipelagic, mesopelagic, bathypelagic, abyssopelagic and benthopelagic realms are home to many different forms of microbes and plankton.

WoS sponge

Deep-sea organisms, and especially microorganisms, may have wide geographic distributions. They occur generally on a regional scale, and may be present within the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of nation states as well as in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ).  Policing genetic resources, especially in the pelagic realm, is therefore somewhat difficult.  Research in the Census of Marine Life has also indicated that many species once thought to be endemic to individual seamounts are now much more widely distributed within a region.  This may make an access and benefit sharing scheme for marine genetic resources difficult to implement.

However, in some cases there may be highly localised occurrences of some biodiversity hotspots, such as at hydrothermal vents, cold seeps, canyons and cold-water coral reefs.  These hotspots may show genetic differentiation at a variety of scales depending on the taxon and on the oceanographic setting.

A number of valuable drugs have been discovered in deep-sea species, as well as novel enzyme systems and anatomical structures. The number of patents of deep-sea genetic resources is increasing rapidly. There is no doubt that the variety of life in the deep ocean, especially of microbes, as shown by the Census of Marine Life, will lead to many novel applications and market opportunities in the future.