Worldwide sales from products using marine biotechnology -- ranging from anti-malaria drugs to suntan creams -- totalled about $100 billion in 2000. And pharmaceutical firms are starting to hunt deeper and deeper.
"Bioprospecting has begun and is set to increase," Sam Johnston, senior research fellow at the UN University's (UNU) Institute of Advanced Studies, said of a UNU report about the hunt for genetic resources on the ocean floor.
Governments, scientists and companies "would all benefit from a set of rules", he told Reuters.
Regulations for the ocean floor could set precedents for access to Antarctica or even the Moon, he said.
In international waters, the ocean floor is an almost lawless zone because existing maritime treaties were agreed when many scientists believed it was devoid of life.
But scientists have since found thriving ecosystems around deep sea mounts, cold seeps -- where fluids rich in hydrocarbons leak into the ocean -- and hydrothermal vents, which spew out superheated water from sub sea volcanoes.
"Deep sea ecosystems hold the promise of huge potential contributions to future human well-being," UNU director A.H. Zakri said in a statement.
But the report said unfettered access could threaten the fragile habitats. And companies -- which might find a cure for AIDS or cancer in the depths -- were deterred from investing by a lack of clarity about access or ownership.
The report says 32 of the 34 broadest categories of animals -- from vertebrates like humans to molluscs or arthropods -- live in the seas. Up to 1,000 different species had been found per square metre in some Pacific or Indian Ocean waters.
"It's very difficult to quantify how many deep seabed organisms are now used in commercial products," said Charlotte Salpin, a lead author of the UNU report.
But she said, for instance, French company Sederma or US group California Tan used enzymes from a heat-loving deep sea bacteria called 'thermus thermophilus' in suntan creams.
"So far very, very few private companies have the funds to carry out research themselves in the deep sea bed," she said.
Every trip to the ocean bed costs about $1 million, according to a Japanese government agency.
The report said major pharmaceutical firms including Merck, Eli Lilly, Pfizer, Roche and Bristol-Myers Squibb all had marine biotechnology departments.
Among marine biotechnology products from shallower waters, the report said a treatment for herpes derived from a sea sponge yielded profits of $50-$100 million a year. Marine biotechnology is also used in the treatment of malaria, cancer or AIDS.
Since 1992, there have been 196 deep seabed expeditions by the United States, ahead of France and Japan on 67 each. The deepest point is the bottom of the Mariana trench in the Pacific Ocean, about 36,000 feet (11,000 metres) below sea level.