30 March 2006

Googling the Genome

I came across this story about Google winning an award as part of the "Captain Hook Awards for Biopiracy" taking part in the suitably piratical-sounding Curitiba, Brazil. The story links to the awards Web site - rather fetching in black, white and red - where there is a full list of the lucky 2006 winners.

I was particularly struck by one category: Most Shameful Act of Biopiracy. This must have been hard to award, given the large field to choose from, but the judges found a worthy winner in the shape of the US Government for the following reason:

For imposing plant intellectual property laws on war-torn Iraq in June 2004. When US occupying forces “transferred sovereignty” to Iraq, they imposed Order no. 84, which makes it illegal for Iraqi farmers to re-use seeds harvested from new varieties registered under the law. Iraq’s new patent law opens the door to the multinational seed trade, and threatens food sovereignty.

Google's citation for Biggest Threat to Genetic Privacy read as follows:

For teaming up with J. Craig Venter to create a searchable online database of all the genes on the planet so that individuals and pharmaceutical companies alike can ‘google’ our genes – one day bringing the tools of biopiracy online.

I think it unlikely that Google and Venter are up to anything dastardly here: from studying the background information - and from my earlier reading on Venter when I was writing Digital Code of Life - I think it is much more likely that they want to create the ultimate gene reference, but on a purely general, not personal basis.

Certainly, there will be privacy issues - you won't really want to be uploading your genome to Google's servers - but that can easily be addressed with technology. For example, Google's data could be downloaded to your PC in encrypted form, decrypted by Google's client application running on your computer, and compared with your genome; the results could then be output locally, but not passed back to Google.

It is particularly painful for me to disagree with the Coalition Against Biopiracy, the organisation behind the awards, since their hearts are clearly in the right place - they even kindly cite my own 2004 Googling the Genome article in their background information to the Google award.

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