Masters Thesis

From Forest to Fumaroles: A New Era in Bioprospecting

Plants have long served as a primary source of medicines for humans. In the mid1990s, that began to change. Innovations in genomic biotechnology appeared on the scene. Some researchers felt frustrated by the recently adopted Convention on Biological Diversity. Bioprospectors looked elsewhere for an additional source of medicines and found it in microbial organisms. Bioprospecting had entered a new era. How and why this expansion into microbial bioprospecting occurred, and what it means for the future of bioprospecting, is the subject of this thesis. Viewed historically, certain events since the European Age of Discovery and onward, are responsible for driving bioprospecting into this new era. Microbial organisms of the greatest interest are called extremophiles. These organisms thrive in places long thought impossible for life. Microbial bioprospecting plays out in distinctly different geographies than that of plants. Humid tropical rainforests have given way to fumaroles in America’s Yellowstone National Park. Deep sea vents thousands of feet beneath the ocean surface offer opportunities for bioprospecting. The frozen expanse of Antarctica has become the focus of bioprospectors. Searching for microbes in two of these three locations has not only changed how bioprospecting is conducted, it has the potential to create geopolitical tensions.

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