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Great bio-treasure hunt in Australia's barrier reef

Great bio-treasure hunt in Australia's barrier reef

Scientists, hunting cures for cancer and AIDS or ways of harnessing nature to make sunscreen or pesticide, have turned their attention to one of Australia's national treasures - the Great Barrier Reef.

The scientists from Australia's fledgling marine biotechnology industry are trawling through the world's largest living structure in the hope of unlocking a treasure chest of micro-organisms, venoms and naturally produced chemicals.

For Joe Baker and others, the sea, where life began, is likely to contain millions of undiscovered micro-organisms and ocean species with untold medical and commercial potential.

"About 80 percent of all living things are in the sea, so whatever we have found on land, you could say four times that is going to be in the sea, or even more," Baker, chief scientist of the north-eastern state of Queensland, told Reuters.

"In potential terms, the value is as great as the whole pharmaceutical industry is today - you are talking billions of dollars."

The scientists are keen to make Australia, a vast island continent of just 19 million people, a world leader in commercialising marine chemical products.

"With one of the world's largest coastlines we've got one of the world's smallest populations, so we don't have the pollution problems and that's an enormous natural advantage," Baker says.

POISONOUS CURES

Peter Isdale, acting director at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) in northern Australia, says many scientists are convinced cures for cancer and other diseases may be found in compounds produced by marine micro-organisms.

"Over 600 million years these organisms have developed fantastic armouries of chemical weapons which they release into the sea water to repel the bad guys," he adds.

"These chemicals are designed to kill cells, so all that remains for scientists is finding the right chemicals which kill disease cells we want, in the process of healing people."

Commercial products in the pipeline include a sunscreen made from micro-algae which protect corals from being burnt by sunlight when the tide falls, and a natural herbicide from marine compounds found on the sea floor.

AIMS has signed a deal with unlisted Sydney company Sunscreen Technologies to develop the sunscreen for a global market.

"There are a wide range of things being looked at such as anti-HIV compounds, anti AIDS, anti-cancer all the way through the herbicides and useful veterinary chemicals," Isdale says.

Peter Andrews, the chief executive of IMBcom, the commercial unit of the Institute of Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland, says an important group of drugs are being developed from cone shell venom.

The Institute has licensed a drug developed from cone shells to Melbourne pharmaceutical company AMRAD Ltd. The drug is undergoing clinical trials as a treatment for pain.

"The venom of every one of about 500 cone shells found in Australia contains hundreds of molecules which has interesting bio-activity and there is tremendous capacity to find new medicines," Andrews predicts.


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