10 June 2007

The Bad Boy of Genomics Strikes Again

When I was writing Digital Code of Life, I sought to be scrupulously fair to Craig Venter, who was often demonised for his commercial approach to science. Ind fact, it seemed to me he had often gone out of his way to make the results of his work available.

So it's with some sadness that I note that the "Bad Boy of Genomics" epithet seems justified in this more recent case:

A research institute has applied for a pat­ent on what could be the first largely ar­ti­fi­cial or­gan­ism. And peo­ple should be al­armed, claims an ad­vo­ca­cy group that is try­ing to shoot down the bid.


The ar­ti­fi­cial or­gan­ism, a mere mi­crobe, is the brain­child of re­search­ers at the Rock­ville, Md.-based J. Craig Ven­ter In­sti­tute. The or­gan­iz­a­tion is named for its found­er and CEO, the ge­net­icist who led the pri­vate sec­tor race to map the hu­man ge­nome in the late 1990s.

The re­search­ers filed their pat­ent claim on the ar­ti­fi­cial or­gan­ism and on its ge­nome. Ge­net­i­cally mo­di­fied life forms have been pa­tented be­fore; but this is the first pa­tent claim for a crea­ture whose genome might be created chem­i­cally from scratch, Mooney said.

This is problematic on a number of levels. For a start, it shouldn't be possible to patent DNA, since it is not an invention. Simply combining existing sequences is not an invention either. There is also the worry that what is being created here is the first genomic operating system: locking others out with patents maans repeating all the mistakes that have been made in some jurisdictions by allowing the patenting of conventional software.

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