Friday, June 08, 2007

First Ever Synthetic Organism Patent?

Wired is reporting that the Venter Institute has applied for a patent on the first fully synthetic organism (i.e., they synthesized the genome in the lab ... I am sure that the organism had to be "booted" up in some way using a living organism).

Wired reports:

Scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute have applied for a U.S. patent on a minimal bacterial genome that they built themselves. According to the patent application, it's "a minimal set of protein-coding genes which provides the information required for replication of a free-living organism in a rich bacterial culture medium."

What do people think? I for one find the patent system completely incomprehensible. I think most biotech. related patents recently have been overly broad and/or represent something that should not be patented. But in this case, I do not know enough detail to really judge but it sounds like at least they did some real work here, which is more than the case for many genome sequence related patents from the past. Given that many places now have patents on mice and other organisms with single genetic knockouts, I do not see how the patent offices could reject a fully synthetic organism. This is not to say whether it is a good idea to synthesize an organism, but I think we are past that point anyway as clearly people will do it.


  1. You beat me to this story. Of course, it has been all over the place in the last few days -- even slashdot.

    I'm not a big fan of patents in general; I think everyone benefits through the free exchange of information. But I don't buy the common argument that there is something particularly more evil about patenting an engineered living organism as opposed to a machine or piece of software. Information is information.

    But given it was going to be patented, I wish it had been done through Craig's Synthetic Genomics startup and not the JCVI. It just confuses the public to have JCVI do it.

  2. There is some discussion about on the synthetic biology mailing list. I read the patent and I can't really digest that type of language. From what I get, it really sounds too broad. They also claim that the invention includes proteins that are functionally related. They did not really show that they could assemble it and that it would be viable etc. I don't like too much that they are trying to claim such a broad invention.

  3. I have to say I don't share your ambiguous feelings on this on, Jonathan - it's reprehensible! The entire patent system is broken, and is little more than a way to hinder the progress of others (while enriching lawyers). Even participating in it is reprehensible. I don't care if this is patentable according to the USPTO - it shouldn't be done. It will just serve as a barrier to others who want to try to synthesize life forms for whatever reason. Why is Craig filing a patent? I think it's just for publicity - I'm betting he doesn't have any "synthetic life" anyway, and just wants to make the claim. Patents let you hide what you're actually doing.
    I would go so far as to argue that filing patents on scientific discoveries (like this one - funded largely by public monies) is no better (actually worse!) than publishing in "closed" journals (versus open access). Scientific and technological information should be freely shared, not patented. I hope I can convince you guys....

  4. I am convinced. I think I was having a brain cramp when I wrote this. I read your stuff (Steven) on your blog about IP and patents and generally agree. And in this case the whole thing seems silly. The point I was trying to make, which I made relly poorly was - how can people complain about this but at the same time say a mouse with a KO of one gene is patentable? I was basically obsessed with this one little logical flaw and not thinking about the big picture which is that the whole enterprise seems to be broken. I am not sure I would go as far as Steven in saying we should not have any of this, but I am happy to change my null hypothesis to be that all patents are bad unless truly proven otherwise. And the standard of proof should be really high.

  5. The main reason for the patent application is to prevent others from stopping JCVI from proceeding. This is a preemptive patent to give JCVI clear skies moving forward. Given current patent law, JCVI essentially has no choice if they want to continue research in this area.

  6. I see the reasoning here and understand completely. Given the current landscape, I do not question this patent at all. It would be nice however, to change the landscape so that it would not have been necessary for JCVI to file this.

  7. How about creating a new term? synanism- synthetic organism - Yet another reform to the way we live! See also 'synonym', altruism, egoism! Just 'isms'! Am I, human kind so vain that I need to be god like. Not that it's about creation, a unique creation but trying to own it. Maybe the applicant should check with 'god' to see if the design of human has been patented? (See also 'The God Delusion" - R. Dawkins) I am a designer that willfully gives away my designs. I charge for the service, the problem solving and communications - drawings and make a very modest living. I dare not try to patent my designs - which are for the enjoyment/ benefit of man. The Right to life - YES. The right to own life - NO (see 'slavery'). Yet this is another example of American (USA) egotism. Not only trying to conquer the world, but own it too!