Synthetic lifeforms and patenting

Last week I was reading New Scientist (as you do), and I came across an extremely interesting article on the race to produce synthetic life. The article claims that scientists are on the verge of producing an entirely new type of life from scratch, a prospect that scares the bejeebus out of me. Don’t these evil scientists know that tampering with life always results in nefarious results?

Events have been building rapidly in the synthetic front. Researchers built a small basic genome from scratch and managed to implant it into an existing cell, which everyone agrees is one of the precursors for creating an artificial lifeform. Another team has managed to build an artificial cell-like self-assembling sphere, where the genome could be implanted. If developments continue to move at the same pace, we could have fully and unequivocal artificial life in the next few years. We will have become like gods and all that.

The interest for intellectual property is quite obvious. Large amount of research money is going into this field as a result of the patenting potential of said artificial beasties. Craig Venter, one of the people involved in the research, has been in the news for filing patent applications for his synthetic genomes. The argument goes that this is just another invention, and whether it self-replicates is irrelevant for its novelty. An invention is an invention and it should be patented.

Colleague Gerard Porter has directed me to a very interesting response to these developments from Arti Rai and James Boyle. They comment that the nascent field is already filled with overly-broad patents that could stifle further research. The authors believe that some efforts like the MIT Registry of Standard Biological Parts could be used to solve potential patent clogs in the future, a view that I wholeheartedly share.

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