The ocean plays a surprising role in fighting COVID-19. With death and infection numbers escalating daily, the World Health Organization has made it clear that countries need to do three things to successfully fight this pandemic: test, test and test.
The dramatic increase in demand for testing has drawn renewed attention to the ocean's genetic diversity. This "ocean genome" is a rich source of anti-viral compounds. In particular, enzymes from a remarkable hydrothermal vent bacterium have been key to the technology in virus test kits, including those used to diagnose COVID-19. Similarly, a protein derived from a coral reef red alga around the Canary Islands has been valuable in the fight against the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, an illness caused by a coronavirus closely related to the one responsible for COVID-19.
This renewed attention to the genetic diversity of ocean organisms also brings conservation and equity concerns — the subject of two recent research papers commissioned by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (Ocean Panel). This research has found that multiple threats face the ocean genome, jeopardizing opportunities for new commercial and scientific uses. At the same time, there is an unbalanced relationship between low- and middle-income countries that are home to most marine biodiversity and higher-income countries, which possess the research capacity, technology, infrastructure and finances to develop marine biotechnology.
These recent papers lay out a clear list of actions that governments and marine researchers can take to safeguard the ocean genome and share its benefits equitably.
Enzymes from a hydrothermal vent bacterium are used in COVID-19 tests. Photo by Aquapix/NOAA.
Marine Conservation Can Help Address Global Threats
The ocean genome, or the genetic material present in all marine organisms and the information it encodes, is the foundation upon which marine ecosystems rest. This genetic diversity determines the abundance and resilience of marine biological resources, including fisheries and aquaculture, which form an important pillar of food security and livelihoods for many countries. These ocean industries provide food for hundreds of millions of people worldwide, and employ over 10% of the world's population.
Marine organisms are currently threatened by overexploitation, habitat loss and degradation, pollution, climate change, invasive species and more. Given the uniqueness and irreplaceability of the genetic material associated with each marine species, any event leading to their extinction will ultimately result in the disappearance of their genetic information. As such, these pressures also threaten the potential of the ocean genome to address current challenges like climate change and COVID-19 as well as future unknown threats, such as other new diseases.
Despite rapid technological progress enabling exploration of marine life at a genetic level, and despite the ocean genome's promising benefits to society, vast gaps in knowledge remain. For instance, most marine species remain undescribed, most genes from marine single-celled organisms cannot be assigned functions, and the functions of some 90% of genetic sequences collected from marine viruses remain unknown. Compromising the conservation of these organisms, when we still know so little about them, could leave us without valuable assets to address and adapt to global threats from environmental degradation and disease.
Ocean Resources Need to be Shared Equitably
To date, mostly high-income countries have had the financial and other relevant capacities required to conduct marine genetic research and commercial activity associated with the ocean genome. However, exploration and sampling of the ocean genome are often conducted in low- or middle-income countries' ocean territories. These countries frequently lack the resources to undertake the research themselves or to access and use the rapidly growing databases of genetic sequence data.
The following maps capture this disparity. Significant marine biodiversity richness surrounds low- or middle-income countries' ocean territories, but most of the patent applications and publications on the ocean genome come from high-income countries.
There is a clear and critical need to ensure that the ocean genome is used in a sustainable, fair and equitable manner. As this field evolves, governments, researchers and companies need to ensure that low- or middle-income countries benefit from their own marine genetic diversity, and that wealthier countries don't unfairly exploit these resources. Many of these questions are currently under discussion in UN negotiations and through the Convention on Biological Diversity.
5 Ways to Protect and Share the Ocean Genome
The research papers identified several opportunities for action to protect the ocean genome's diversity and support the equitable distribution of current and potential benefits from its use.
1. Protect marine genetic diversity as part of ocean conservation measures.
This hinges on protecting at least 30% of the ocean by implementing fully or highly protected marine protected areas. These actions should consider local community rights and access, and ensure local people's involvement in decision-making.
2. Support greater equity in research and commercialization.
For example, marine biodiscovery collaborations should be based on equitable research partnerships, ensuring the inclusion of scientists from low- and middle-income countries and research institutions. Partners should transfer technology, allocate fair budgets and develop marine scientific capacity for all parties in these collaborations. Funders should provide incentives for research targeted toward important but underfunded societal problems such as environmental remediation and diseases afflicting developing countries. Governments should also create benefit-sharing mechanisms and agreements when conducting research and commercial activities in other countries' waters.
3. Ensure that intellectual property norms support a sustainable and equitable ocean economy.
Governments should balance intellectual property right incentives with the sharing of technologies between their producers and users. Once granted, reasonable limitations to the exercise of intellectual property rights must be applied. Measures such as non-exclusive licensing, affordability of patented technologies and broad research use exceptions can enable access to and transfer of technology, and enhance global research capacity. Additionally, these kinds of measures can be better implemented if information about the biological and geographic origins of genetic material is shared transparently across all associated commercial and noncommercial activities.
4. Assess the risks and benefits of new marine genetic technologies and practices.
For example, this applies to the use of molecular engineering technologies in the ocean, and the creation of genetically modified marine organisms. Assessing these risks requires the initiation of an international deliberative process, involving stakeholders from all sectors, to develop principles for whether and how genetic technologies should be used in the marine environment and to debate the merits of different approaches.
5. Increase financial and political support to improve knowledge of the ocean genome.
This would include philanthropy organizations playing a more coordinated role to provide infrastructure and funding for marine science, and supporting initiatives that promote joint investigation and ownership of science by and for low-income countries and marginalized groups.
Many countries with high marine biodiversity don't have the resources to research and benefit from the ocean genome. Photo by Kevin Lino/NOAA.
For in-depth analysis of current equity trends in the ocean and opportunities for conservation and sustainable use of the ocean genome, read the Ocean Panel's blue papers on Ocean Equity and the Ocean Genome.