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Artificial Life is Patentable

Written by Tim Mount on 23 May 2010

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In mainstream news recently there has been much of talk of the work of Dr J. Craig Venter, an American scientist originally famous for leading the project to map the human genome and a Vietnam war veteran and showman known as the Henry Ford of biotechnology, has declared that he has created life in his lab.

In the words of The Daily Mail

In a world first, which has alarmed many, maverick biologist and billionaire entrepreneur Craig Venter, built a synthetic cell from scratch.


The JCVI research team (headed up by Dr Ventner) sequenced the genetic code of a bacterium and then used computer data and undisclosed chemicals to construct a copy from scratch.

The press release stated that Synthia could be a boon to second-generation agrofuels making it - theoretically - possible to feed people and cars simultaneously and that Synthia, or synthetic biology, could help clean up the environment, save us from climate change, and address the food crisis.

The new synthetic genome has been nicknamed Synthia. Synthia was inserted into the cell of an existing bacterium. The host cell starts with the Synthia genome and begins producing Synthia's synthetic proteins, instead of its own. Venter insists that his team has participated in White House-level bioethical reviews, and is being thoughtful about the implications of their work.

Observers are lining up to raise ethical and moral concerns, and have expressed fears relating to misuse, accusing the team involved of playing God and tampering with the essence of life.

Here at readingroom our concerns are more prosaic. Namely, that the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) Rockville, Maryland, USA, has filed for patent protection. Having partially funded JCVI's research, the U.S. government's Department of Energy holds certain rights to the Venter Institute's US 20070122826 and international application WO2007047148.

Ventner has had plenty of time to consider the implications, or plenty of time to come to terms with them, as he has been working on synthetic life for a decade. He has said:

It is our final triumph. This is the first synthetic cell. It's the first time we have started with information in a computer, used four bottles of chemicals to write up a million letters of DNA software, and actually got it to boot up in a living organism. Though this is a baby step, it enables a change in philosophy, a change in thinking, a change in the tools we have.


Leading US case Diamond v. Chakrabarty restricted the ability to patent life forms, by excluding naturally-occurring organisms from such monopoly rights. Diamond v. Chakrabarty (1980) was a United States Supreme Court case where in a 5-4 ruling, the court ruled in favour of Indian inventor Chakrabarty, who had developed a bacterium capable of breaking down crude oil to deal with spillages et al, and upheld his patent.

The court ruled that patents could be issued for anything under the sun that is made by man.

Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote:

The relevant distinction is not between living and inanimate things,

..but rather between naturally existing and human-made inventions, and because the bacterium was created in a laboratory through cross breeding, it was not nature's handiwork, but the product of human ingenuity and research.

Synthia and (her?) ilk may allow biotech companies to avoid the distinction, between naturally existing and human-made inventions, by creating synthetic versions of organisms.

The ETC Group (an international organization dedicated to the conservation and sustainable advancement of cultural and ecological diversity and human rights with the full name of Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration and intended to be pronounced et cetera) has challenged JCVI's patent on ethical and public safety grounds.

ETC previously won a 13-year challenge to a Monsanto soybean patent but their present challenge looks somewhat less promising, as JCVI's Synthia research was backed by the U.S. government, BP, and Exxon Mobil.

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