Patenting Artificial Life

The first patent appli­ca­tion for an arti­fi­cial liv­ing organ­ism has recent­ly been filed. Don’t believe me?

From the Econ­o­mist:

YOU have to hand it to Craig Ven­ter, he is not some­one who thinks small. The lat­est adven­ture of the man who was the first to sequence the genome of a liv­ing organ­ism (three weeks after his grant request to do so was reject­ed on the grounds it was impos­si­ble), the first to pub­lish the genome of an iden­ti­fi­able human being (him­self) and the first to con­ceive the idea of sequenc­ing the genome of an entire ecosys­tem (and to enjoy a nice cruise across the Pacif­ic Ocean in his yacht while he did so) is curi­ous­ly rem­i­nis­cent of the inci­dent that made him a con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure in the first place. That was when, 16 years ago, he attempt­ed to patent parts of sev­er­al hun­dred genes—the first time any­one had tried to take out a patent on more than one gene at a time.

This time, he is propos­ing to patent not mere­ly a few genes, but life itself. Not all of life, of course. At least, not yet. Rather, he has applied for a patent on the syn­thet­ic bac­teri­um that he and his col­leagues Clyde Hutchi­son and Hamil­ton Smith have been work­ing on for the past few years.

The patent appli­ca­tion itself was filed with­out fan­fare some eight months ago. But it was only at the end of May that the slow­ly grind­ing bureau­cra­cy of America’s patent office got round to pub­lish­ing it. The cen­tral claim is to what Dr Ven­ter calls the “min­i­mal bac­te­r­i­al genome”. This is a list of the 381 genes he thinks are need­ed to keep an organ­ism alive. The list has been assem­bled by tak­ing the organ­ism he first sequenced, Mycoplas­ma gen­i­tal­i­um, and knock­ing out each of its 470 genes to see which ones it can man­age with­out.

The theory—and the claim made by the patent—is that by syn­the­sis­ing a string of DNA that has all 381 of these genes, and then putting it inside a “ghost cell” con­sist­ing of a cell mem­brane, along with the bits and pieces of mol­e­c­u­lar machin­ery that are need­ed to read genes and trans­late them into pro­teins, an arti­fi­cial organ­ism will have been cre­at­ed.

As can be expect­ed, this devel­op­ment not with­out its fair share of con­tro­ver­sy:

As Pat Mooney put it, “For the first time, God has com­pe­ti­tion.” No doubt Dr Ven­ter, hard­ly famous as a shrink­ing vio­let, will be amused by the com­par­i­son.

Nev­er­the­less, ETC is hop­ing to pro­voke a debate. And to give peo­ple a name to hang on to in that debate it sug­gests nick­nam­ing Mycoplas­ma lab­o­ra­to­ri­um, as the appli­ca­tion calls the puta­tive inven­tion, as “Syn­thia”. The organ­i­sa­tion hopes this name will stick in the pop­u­lar con­scious­ness in the way that Ian Wilmutt’s cloned sheep Dol­ly did. Indeed, it is rather a good name. Giv­en the affec­tion that Dol­ly attract­ed once the shock of her exis­tence had been absorbed, per­haps Dr Ven­ter — him­self no slouch at pub­lic­i­ty — will adopt it.

This entry was posted in economy, nature, philosophy, Science, U.S.. Bookmark the permalink.
  • Genom­ic patent­ing is one area where I believe the US is going wrong. In every oth­er third world coun­try, patent­ing is weak or non-exis­tent, result­ing in silent but huge eco­nom­ic and devel­op­men­tal loss­es to these coun­tries. How­ev­er, in the US, genom­ic patent­ing is being tak­en to ludi­crous lev­els. The own­er­ship is often being claimed for mere­ly dis­cov­er­ing an exis­tent code of DNA, rather that a cre­ation based on such dis­cov­ery. I don’t know if I am sound­ing clear in what I just said!

  • And the increas­ing com­mer­cial­iza­tion of exis­tence con­tin­ues. I find this to be deeply dis­turb­ing…

  • Ramana: 1. Weak patent­ing in third-world coun­tries doesn’t itself make it wrong for the US/European coun­tries to advance on it. It is up to the third-world coun­tries to real­ize the eco­nom­ic lossess they’re fac­ing as a result, and act on improv­ing their patent sys­tems.
    2. Yes, a mere dis­cov­ery of an exist­ing DNA code is cer­tain­ly not patent-wor­thy. Do you have an exam­ple such a thing is hap­pen­ing (and being accept­ed) in the US?

    The Imu­gi: Depends on what you call exis­tence. A patent­ed life-sav­ing drug pill is also com­posed of noth­ing but some mol­e­c­u­lar mat­ter. Should the com­pa­ny that spends bil­lions of dol­lars in R&D devel­op­ing such a drug not patent it? Com­ing to what I think is your real point — com­mer­cial­iza­tion of life — I’m not dis­turbed so far, but we do need to be care­ful.

    We have domes­ti­cat­ed dogs, hors­es, cat­tle, and use them for their milk or for labor, already. New organ­isms devel­oped and patent­ed by dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies for dif­fer­ent pur­pos­es — one may help cure a dis­ease, anoth­er may be a great house­hold pet — is also some­thing I can look at quite com­fort­ably with­in next few decades. When this process reach­es a point where we start cre­at­ing humanoids, that’s when things will real­ly start to get eth­i­cal­ly and philo­soph­i­cal­ly com­plex!

  • New organ­isms devel­oped and patent­ed by dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies for dif­fer­ent pur­pos­es — one may help cure a dis­ease, anoth­er may be a great house­hold pet — is also some­thing I can look at quite com­fort­ably with­in next few decades. When this process reach­es a point where we start cre­at­ing humanoids, that’s when things will real­ly start to get eth­i­cal­ly and philo­soph­i­cal­ly com­plex!

    I think, though, they are already philo­soph­i­cal­ly com­plex. What exact­ly is the divid­ing line between cre­at­ing a humanoid and an ani­mal? And if we are able to patent organ­isms, why not human-like organ­isms as well? Move­ments such as the “Great Ape Per­son­hood Project” are already sug­gest­ing that what we con­sid­er to be “human” should per­haps be widened. What about if we cre­ate an organ­ism that is vast­ly above the intel­li­gence of an animal—but still marked­ly less intel­li­gent than an aver­age human being? Should such crea­tures have rights? Per­haps it’s just me, but there is some­thing decid­ed­ly creepy about the patent­ing of any­thing more advanced than an amoe­ba.

  • What exact­ly is the divid­ing line between cre­at­ing a humanoid and (cre­at­ing) an ani­mal?”
    There can’t be a firm divid­ing line. A humanoid is just a robot like any oth­er, who looks like a human.

    I am against chang­ing or widen­ing the con­cept of what we define to be human today. And only human beings have “rights”.

    No crea­tures, humanoids, liv­ing or non-liv­ing, oth­er than humans, have rights. How­ev­er, this is slight­ly off-top­ic. The point is, we grant a patent to some­one who invents a robot. This is because the par­tic­u­lar process or inno­va­tion used in creating/manufacturing that robot is to be rec­og­nized. If some­one is able to cre­ate a new organ­ism (which has either nev­er been cre­at­ed in Nature or has become extinct), using some oth­er sci­en­tif­ic inno­va­tion, why shouldn’t we rec­og­nize that?

    A patent by itself does not guar­an­tee any com­mer­cial ben­e­fits. It rec­og­nizes that the process or tech­nique or idea behind an inven­tion (the arti­fi­cial life we’re hypoth­e­siz­ing should be an inven­tion, not a dis­cov­ery of some strands of DNA like Ramana point­ed out above), was unique­ly estab­lished for the first time by the own­er of that patent.

    It is only if the invent­ed organ­ism proves a com­mer­cial­ly viable prod­uct, will the patent own­er be able to ben­e­fit from his patent.

    I under­stand this can be deeply offend­ing and creepy to some folks. It isn’t to me, prob­a­bly since I’m pret­ty much a mate­ri­al­ist…

  • Mahen­dra,
    Check out Crichton’s new book ‘Next’, and you will know what I am talk­ing about. The same thing is being reg­u­lar­ly played out in real life. By the way, I invite you to check out an arti­cle I wrote on ‘DISRUPTIVE MEDICINE’, that you will find in my blog: http://bramana.blogspot.com/2007/05/disruptive-medicine.html. This is a very inter­est­ing dis­cus­sion about humanoids, cyborgs and rights. Robots have been cre­at­ed that can now sort of ‘emote’ and think, adjust, and react, like human beings. My arti­cle touch­es on some of these issues. There is a whole new world out there wait­ing to be explored!