The ethics and politics of gene mining

Bioprospecting in the genomics era: exploring and assessing the normative issues


  1. Epistemological level: What new knowledge forms are involved in metagenomics as the most recent wave in the history of bioprospecting? What does this add to previous forms of exploration and exploitation? What new dimensions are opened up for our will to know?
  2. Biopolitical level:To what extent are emerging regulatory approaches able to meet the challenges involved in metagenomics-based bioprospecting? To what extent does metagenomics bioprospecting constitute a challenge to key concepts involved in biopolitical regimes such as ownership, benefit sharing, intellectual property and the precautionary principle?
  3. Bioethical level: How are we to address the dilemmas involved in designing and conducting bioprospecting endeavours?

Duration: December 2009 - December 2013. 

Nowadays, even the most remote and extreme environments cannot escape the attentions of our craving for knowledge. Hot geysers, sulphurous springs, Antarctica; we search everywhere for organisms with unique properties: This is known as bioprospecting, and it brings with it an entirely new set of problems. All of these environments contain a wealth of genetic data with properties that are of interest to the pharmaceuticals and foodstuffs industries for example. The risk therefore remains that such discoveries may trigger a gold rush in these particularly fragile ecological systems. 

This project is studying the ethical and political issues concerning the problem of bioprospecting, on the basis of developments taking place in the field of deep-sea exploration. The deep sea is home to the world’s largest ecological systems, containing perhaps the greatest number of hitherto undiscovered species. The project is therefore investigating the possibility of a conflict of interests emerging between nature conservancy and commerce in the future. There is also the problem of the location of these exploration sites; the fact that they are located in international waters implies that there are no clear-cut regulations governing the availability of the data acquired or the appropriation of any financial gains.

A model addressing the ethical considerations that this issue raises is ultimately to be compiled on the basis of historic research, interviews and visits to institutes involved in bioprospecting. This may serve as a source of advice to governments seeking to implement regulations and legislation in this area. The deep sea also serves as an example for other environments. Public interaction should promote support for the sustainable development of nature conservancy in these sorts of extreme environments.