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Bioprospectors Head North for Arctic DNA

Companies have begun to profit from the adaptations of organisms in the North, but a UN think tank suggests Canada is falling behind

Oil and gas are usually considered the Arctic's most valuable resources, but a new report suggests northern lands and seas are developing another increasingly profitable industry - genetics.

And figures from a presentation to be delivered today at a United Nations-sponsored conference in Iceland suggest Canada could be falling behind in taking advantage of it.

Arctic biotechnology already involves dozens of companies from around the world and is affecting products from ice cream to anti-stroke medications, said David Leary, an international lawyer with United Nations University's Institute of Advanced Studies, a think tank that advises the UN General Assembly.

"Bioprospecting is not just for the tropical countries," he said from Akureyri, Iceland.

In the first global look at biotechnology and the North, Mr. Leary has found 43 companies are already either selling or developing products derived from the DNA found in Arctic plants and animals. The Arctic's unique environment has given rise to unique - and useful - adaptations.

"It's primarily the extreme environment there," he said.

Most of the activity so far has focused on using compounds from organisms that have evolved to live at near-zero or even subzero environments.

Enzymes from Arctic fish that remain active near the freezing mark allow food processors to operate at lower - and safer - temperatures. Such cold-adapted enzymes show potential for improving products from bread to beer. Other companies are using so-called "antifreeze proteins" found in Arctic plants and animals as a way to improve the taste, texture and safety of frozen food.

One company is using antifreeze proteins from the Arctic pout, an eel-like fish found off Labrador, to make low-fat ice cream.

Some of those proteins may have medical value. Proteins from the Arctic squirrel, the only mammal known to be able to lower its body temperature below freezing, are being tested to see if they will help people recover from strokes.

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