7 June 2007
Patenting Pandora's Bug
Goodbye, Dolly...Hello, Synthia!
J. Craig Venter Institute Seeks Monopoly Patents
on the World's First-Ever Human-Made Life Form
ETC Group Will Challenge Patents on "Synthia" - Original Syn Organism
Created in Laboratory
Ten years after Dolly the cloned sheep made her stunning debut, the
J. Craig Venter Institute is applying for a patent on a new
biological bombshell - the world's first-ever human-made species. The
novel bacterium is made entirely with synthetic DNA in the laboratory.
The Venter Institute - named for its founder and CEO, J. Craig
Venter, the scientist who led the private sector race to map the
Human Genome - is applying for worldwide patents on what they refer
to as "Mycoplasma laboratorium." In the tradition of 'Dolly,' ETC has
nicknamed this synthetic organism (or 'syn') 'Synthia.'
"Synthia may not be as cuddly as a cloned lamb, but we believe this
is a much bigger deal," explains Jim Thomas of ETC Group, a civil
society organization that is calling on the world's patent offices to
reject the applications. "These monopoly claims signal the start of a
high-stakes commercial race to synthesize and privatize synthetic
life forms. Will Venter's company become the 'Microbesoft' of
synthetic biology?" asks Jim Thomas.
"For the first time, God has competition," adds Pat Mooney of ETC
Group. "Venter and his colleagues have breached a societal boundary,
and the public hasn't even had a chance to debate the far-reaching
social, ethical and environmental implications of synthetic life,"
In Vivo, In Vitro, In-Venter? Published on May 31, 2007, the Venter
Institute's US Patent application (number 20070122826) claims
exclusive ownership of a set of essential genes and a synthetic "free-
living organism that can grow and replicate" that is made using those
genes. The Venter Institute has also filed an international patent
application at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO
number WO2007047148, published April 27, 2007) which names more than
100 countries where it may seek monopoly patents.
Pandora pending: Patent experts consulted by ETC Group indicate that,
based on the language used in the application, the Venter Institute
researchers had probably not achieved a fully-functioning organism at
the time of the filing (October 12, 2006).
"It has been eight months since the Institute applied for its
patents, so we don't know how much progress they've made, whether
there is a scientific paper in press or how imminent the first
synthetic species is," said Pat Mooney of ETC Group. "We've been
hearing for more than two years now that Venter is on the verge of
announcing the birth of a new bacterium. Many people think Venter's
company has the scientific expertise to do the job," said Mooney.
Venter's Institute claims that its stripped-down microbe could be the
key to cheap energy production. The patent application claims any
version of "Synthia" that can make ethanol or hydrogen. Since the
research was partially funded by the US Department of Energy, the US
government will hold "certain rights" to the patent, if approved.
"It's purely speculation and hype that syns [synthetic living
organisms] will be used to ameliorate climate change by producing
cheap ethanol or hydrogen," said Jim Thomas. "The same minimal
microbe could be harnessed to build a virulent pathogen that could
pose grave threats to people and the planet," he said.
"Synthetic biologists have already assembled the poliovirus from off-
the-shelf DNA, a feat that its constructor called 'a giant wake up
call' because of the biowarfare implications. Syns are being hyped as
a green, climate-change solution in order to deflect concerns that
they could be used as bioweapons," adds Silvia Ribeiro of ETC Group.
The patent application is also a wake-up call to synthetic biologists
who are advocating for "open source" biology - the idea that the
fundamental tools and components of synthetic biology should be
freely accessible to researchers. In the June 4 issue of Newsweek
Craig Venter boasts, "If we made an organism that produced fuel, that
could be the first billion- or trillion-dollar organism. We would
definitely patent that whole process." In 2005, Venter founded
Synthetic Genomics, Inc. to commercialize synthetic microbes for use
in energy, agriculture and climate change remediation.
Syn of Omission? Synthetic biologists may also be dismayed to learn
that Synthia is being patented for what it is not. The patent
application explains that the inventors arrived at their minimal
genome by determining which genes are essential and which are not.
Remarkably, their patent application claims any synthetically-
constructed organism that lacks at least 55 of 101 genes that they've
determined are non-essential. "All synthetic biologists developing
functionalized microbes are going to have to pay close attention to
the claim on a 'non-essential' set of genes. If someone creates
another bug that lacks some of the same genes that Synthia lacks,
will the Venter Institute sue them for infringing its patent?" asks
Kathy Jo Wetter of ETC Group.
Action Needed: Before syns are allowed to go forward, society must
debate whether they are socially acceptable or desirable: How could
their accidental release into the environment be prevented or the
effects of their intentional release be evaluated? Who will control
them, and how? How will research be regulated? In 2006 a coalition of
38 civil society organizations called on synthetic biologists to
withdraw proposals for self-governance of the technology.
Today, ETC Group is writing to Dr. J. Craig Venter, CEO of the J.
Craig Venter Institute, asking him to withdraw the Institute's patent
applications filed at the U.S. PTO and WIPO, pending a full public
debate over the implications of creating synthetic life forms.
"We don't want to engage in a long-term legal strategy to slap down
bad patents. These patents must be struck down before they're
issued," said ETC Group's Hope Shand. Last month, ETC Group won its
13-year legal challenge when the European Patent Office revoked
Monsanto's species-wide soybean patent.
ETC is also writing to WIPO and the U.S. PTO, asking them to reject
the patent on the grounds that it is contrary to ordre public (public
morality and safety). Later this month ETC Group will attend
Synthetic Biology 3.0 (an international conference of synthetic
biologists) in Zuerich, Switzerland June 24-26 where it will call
upon scientists to join in a global dialogue on synthetic biology.
ETC will organize meetings with governments and civil society during
the upcoming scientific subcommittee meetings of the UN Convention on
Biological Diversity (CBD) in Paris, July 2-6, in order to discuss
the implications of the creation of synthetic life forms for the
Biodiversity Convention and for its protocol on biosafety. ETC Group
will convene a global meeting of civil society actors on this and
related issues within the next year.
Notes to Editors: See backgrounder.
For further information:
Jim Thomas (Montreal) email@example.com Tel: 1 514 271 2539
Pat Mooney (Ottawa) firstname.lastname@example.org Mobile: +1 613 261 0688
Silvia Ribeiro (Mexico) email@example.com Tel: + 52 5555 6326 64
Kathy Jo Wetter (North Carolina) firstname.lastname@example.org Tel: +1 919 960-5223
Hope Shand (North Carolina) email@example.com Tel: +1 919 960-5223
Etiquetas: Synthetic Biology