The invaluable contribution to scientific knowledge made by rainforest exploration is well known, and the health benefits gained from the resultant yield of life-saving medications are enjoyed by billions. By contrast, we are far less aware of the world beneath the waves and, although this marine environment extends across more than two thirds of our planet, around 95 per cent of its area remains unexplored.

Mankind, of course, has long been aware that the seas are a protein-rich, but the notion that the world's oceans could also represent another rich source of life-enhancing compounds, which could in turn form the basis of new medical treatments is still a relatively little-known and under-reported concept.

Bio-prospecting potential

Brown KelpWithin the UK, scientists are currently exploring the wild waters off the west coast of Scotland. These waters harbour a remarkable range of flora and fauna well-adapted to life in the harsh conditions, which can include extremes of temperature, both dazzling light and total darkness, and enormous pressures in the ocean depths. Attracted by the innate resilience of such species, researchers hope to gather knowledge with positive medical implications. For example, it has already been discovered that certain of the native spiny starfish have a slimy outer covering rich in anti-inflammatory chemicals, which, it is hoped, might be used to develop potent new remedies benefiting asthma and arthritis sufferers. In addition, seaweed found on the Firth of Clyde shoreline beside the picturesque Culzean Castle has been shown to possess viable wound-healing properties, and scientists are optimistic that the many of the ocean region's plants and marine organisms are rich in undiscovered gene sequences and unique compounds. Such raw materials, it is believed, could pave the way for a whole host of medical advances, perhaps including new forms of antibiotics, and a new generation of cancer-combatting drugs.

Hard at work on the coastline in the shadow of the Culzean fortress, Scottish bio-prospectors Marine Biopolymers Ltd now harvest quantities of dark seaweed sludge revealed by the receding tide. This, as CEO David Mackie explains, is the pre-extraction stage of the process: 'We're extracting chemicals from the inside of it – it's a natural polymer called alginate. The best medical use is wound dressing. Alginate is well established as a very effective wound dressing for certain types of wounds.'

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the ocean, scientific diver Dr Andrew Mogg is undertaking deep-sea investigations on behalf of the Scottish Association for Marine Science (Sams). As a member of the Seabiotech consortium which funds the work, Sams' cutting-edge research is looking to detect unknown natural resources. Spelling out the aims of this initiative, Mogg said: 'The reason we look at these novel bioactive compounds, especially from the sea, is because nature is a fantastic designer – it's constantly making new things and testing them, it's been doing it for eons.'

Medical gold rush

Coral ReefFuelled by the ocean's inestimable pharmacological potential, commercial interests, governments and global environmental organisations are all taking a keen interest in progress within this new field of exploration. As a result, ocean-research readily attracts funding: Seabiotech itself has enjoyed upwards of £6.2m EU funding, whilst the EEC's overall marine-research budget is set to rise to 145m euros as its support enters a new phase.

Discussing this untapped potential in terms of a new frontier, marine scientist Dr John Day, who represents Sams, observed that, scientifically speaking, much of the easily accessible raw material on land had already been discovered, adding: 'Historically (the ocean) isn't a place that people have looked, so they haven't exploited it. In addition, there's a whole raft of new technologies allowing one to screen more methodically and more scientifically and produce more useful data that can point you towards a final product.' Also acknowledging that the thorny issues of sustainability, 'political will', and much more, had still to be satisfactorily addressed, he went on to confirm: 'we are looking at how we can utilize other parts of the planet to produce new industries and technologies.'

Securing a sustainable legacy for all

The promise of new treatments for present ills, and extra protection for the fight against future diseases is clearly a powerful incentive to harness the world's maritime resources. But, of course, cultivation must be balanced to avoid the risk of destroying an irreplaceable habitat.

There is a clear need to upgrade the policing of the world's oceans which is currently designed for the fishing and mining industries, rather than bio-prospecting, to reflect modern concerns and complexities. Within this environment, valuable resources exist on and below the sea bed, but are by no means limited to this location. Ocean resources can also be found elsewhere in coral reefs, buried in deep ocean trenches, and also suspended in seawater itself. The nature of bio-prospecting raises a kaleidoscope of issues: access rights, research funding, technical concerns surrounding patents and intellectual property rights, as well as equitable distribution of benefits, fair global regulation, and more.

Commercial perspectives

The financial risks that Drug Companies take in driving forward new types of pharmacological research are considerable. Seabiotech's Prof Linda Harvey, based at the University of Strathclyde, underlines the difficulties posed by lack of regulation, saying: 'It's particularly important for companies to have legal clarity when they're working in open waters because they're making a huge investment.'

Likewise, the University of Aberdeen's Prof Marcel Jaspars, who operates the Pharmsea consortium, described the dilemma many new companies face: 'It will cost money to develop a drug and put it through clinical trials, and if they don't have legal certainty they will potentially lose the right to produce that drug which is not acceptable. In my opinion that would put companies off investing in taking samples from the deep-sea environment'.

Given the time it takes to bring new pharmaceuticals to the market, it seems that the real challenge is to introduce robust legislation which provides the legal certainty required, and protect fragile marine ecosystems.