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!