Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Does Antarctica Hold the Cure for TB?

An India-based pharmaceutical research company, Piramal Life Sciences, is investigating several promising medical treatments derived from Antarctic bacteria. Because of Antarctica's extremely cold weather, the bacteria found there are often not found anywhere else in the world. While it is too early to know how effective these drugs will be or exactly how they work, Piramal's announcement underscores the need for strict oversight of human activities in Antarctica. It would be a shame if other beneficial bacteria were inadvertently destroyed or altered by pollution before we have a chance to study them.

For this reason, ASOC has encouraged those conducting research in Antarctica to do so with extreme caution. For example, researchers are eager to learn more about subglacial lakes that have been cut off from the outside world for centuries. The likelihood that these untouched lakes possess some or many organisms and microbes found nowhere else in the world is high, and drilling through the ice that covers them must be done carefully to prevent contamination. Until we know more about the lakes' ecosystems, we cannot know if the organisms that live there would survive contact with external chemicals and microbes. This is particularly true in the case of Lake Vostok.

While widespread bioprospecting of Antarctica would no doubt bring its own environmental challenges, responsible use of scientific discoveries could prove tremendously beneficial to mankind. Minimizing human impacts on the continent will ensure that we preserve Antarctica's unique organisms long enough to understand and study them.

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