Bioprospecting in Practice: How a drug goes from the ocean to the clinic.

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of the Deep-sea Mining Observer. It is reprinted here with permission. For the latest news and analysis about the development of the deep-sea mining industry, subscribe to DSM Observer here:

Bioprospecting, the discovery of new pharmaceutical compounds, industrial chemicals, and novel genes from natural systems, is frequently cited among the critical non-mineral commercial activities that yield value from the deep ocean. Isolating new chemicals or molecular processes from nature can provide substantial benefits to numerous industries. The value of products derived from marine genetic resources alone is valued at $50 billion while a single enzyme isolated from a deep-sea hydrothermal vent used in ethanol production has an annual economic impact of $150 million. 

In contrast to other extractive processes, bioprospecting is driven by and dependent on biodiversity. The greater the diversity and novelty of an ecosystem, the greater the likelihood that new compounds exist within that community. Bioprospecting is also viewed as light extraction, compounds only need to be identified once–actual production happens synthetically in the lab–thus leaving ecosystems relatively undisturbed compared to more intensive industries.

Despite the promise and importance of bioprospecting, there is generally a relatively poor understanding of what the process of discovery entails. How do researchers go from sponges on the seafloor to new antiviral treatments? 

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How bioprospecting became biomining.

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Bioprospecting. One of the great buzzwords of economic conservation–the movement to assign economic value to natural systems such that we could justify their protection on a pragmatic basis. Our definitions were soft. A shark was worth $1 million to tourism. A wetland provided $12 billion in services. And, most persuasively, biodiversity retention could lead to $100 trillion in new drug discoveries. Economic conservation provided a huge, pragmatic incentive and allowed us to protect vast swaths of ocean.

The problem, of course, lies in the fact that once you hang conservation on the economic value of nature, as soon as the value of exploitation exceeds the conservation value, the system fails.

Bioprospecting was that tipping point.

We live in a post-antibiotic world. Microbes adapt to medicine almost as quickly as new drugs are discovered. A huge proportion of medical funding is now dedicated exclusively to exploration for the sole purpose of discovering new novel antibiotics, anti-microbials, and viracides that can stem the tides of Massively Resistant Vectors (often anthropomorphized as Merv by medical professionals) for a few more months. This enhanced exploration has led to an entirely new industry–Biomining. Read More