Artificial Life is Patentable
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23 May 2010
In mainstream news recently there has been much of talk of the
work of Dr J. Craig Venter, an American scientist originally famous for leading
the project to map the human genome and a Vietnam war veteran and showman known
as the Henry Ford of biotechnology, has declared that he has created life in his
In the words of The Daily Mail
In a world first, which has alarmed many, maverick biologist
and billionaire entrepreneur Craig Venter, built a synthetic cell from scratch.
The JCVI research team (headed up by Dr Ventner) sequenced the
genetic code of a bacterium and then used computer data and undisclosed
chemicals to construct a copy from scratch.
The press release stated that Synthia could be a boon to
second-generation agrofuels making it - theoretically - possible to feed people
and cars simultaneously and that Synthia, or synthetic biology, could help clean
up the environment, save us from climate change, and address the food crisis.
The new synthetic genome has been nicknamed Synthia.
Synthia was inserted into the cell of an existing bacterium. The host cell
starts with the Synthia genome and begins producing Synthia's synthetic
proteins, instead of its own. Venter insists that his team has participated in
White House-level bioethical reviews, and is being thoughtful about the
implications of their work.
Observers are lining up to raise ethical and moral concerns, and
have expressed fears relating to misuse, accusing the team involved of playing
God and tampering with the essence of life.
Here at readingroom our concerns are more prosaic. Namely, that
the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) Rockville, Maryland, USA, has filed for
patent protection. Having partially funded JCVI's research, the U.S.
government's Department of Energy holds certain rights to the Venter Institute's
US 20070122826 and international application WO2007047148.
Ventner has had plenty of time to consider the implications, or
plenty of time to come to terms with them, as he has been working on synthetic
life for a decade. He has said:
It is our final triumph. This is the first synthetic cell.
It's the first time we have started with information in a computer, used four
bottles of chemicals to write up a million letters of DNA software, and actually
got it to boot up in a living organism. Though this is a baby step, it enables a
change in philosophy, a change in thinking, a change in the tools we have.
Leading US case Diamond v. Chakrabarty restricted the
ability to patent life forms, by excluding naturally-occurring organisms from
such monopoly rights. Diamond v. Chakrabarty (1980) was a United States Supreme
Court case where in a 5-4 ruling, the court ruled in favour of Indian inventor
Chakrabarty, who had developed a bacterium capable of breaking down crude oil to
deal with spillages et al, and upheld his patent.
The court ruled that patents could be issued for anything
under the sun that is made by man.
Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote:
The relevant distinction is not between living and inanimate
..but rather between naturally existing and human-made
inventions, and because the bacterium was created in a laboratory through
cross breeding, it was not nature's handiwork, but the product of human
ingenuity and research.
Synthia and (her?) ilk may allow biotech companies to avoid the
distinction, between naturally existing and human-made inventions, by creating
synthetic versions of organisms.
The ETC Group (an international organization dedicated to the
conservation and sustainable advancement of cultural and ecological diversity
and human rights with the full name of Action Group on Erosion, Technology and
Concentration and intended to be pronounced et cetera) has challenged JCVI's
patent on ethical and public safety grounds.
ETC previously won a 13-year challenge to a Monsanto soybean
patent but their present challenge looks somewhat less promising, as JCVI's
Synthia research was backed by the U.S. government, BP, and Exxon Mobil.
Tim Mount is a trainee solicitor, contactable at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2010-05-29 22:00:31 in Legal Articles