First patent claimed on man-made life form, and challenged
Jun 08,2007 00:00 by Bend_Weekly_News_Sources

A research institute has applied for a pat­ent on what could be the first largely ar­ti­fi­cial or­gan­ism. And peo­ple should be al­armed, claims an ad­vo­ca­cy group that is try­ing to shoot down the bid.

The idea of own­ing a spe­cies breaches “a so­ci­e­tal bound­ary,” said Pat Mooney of the Ot­ta­wa, Canada-based ETC Group, which is asking the pat­ent ap­pli­cants to drop their claim. Creat­ing and own­ing an or­gan­ism, he added, means that “for the first time, God has com­pe­ti­tion.”

The par­a­sit­ic mi­crobe M. gen­i­tal­ium (Cour­te­sy Frantz, Al­bay and Bott, UNC/Chapel Hill)

His group claims cred­it for spur­ring the Eu­ro­pe­an Pat­ent Of­fice last month to re­voke a pat­ent on ge­net­ic­ally mod­i­fied soy­beans by St. Lou­is, Mo.-based Mon­santo Co., af­ter a 13-year le­gal chal­lenge by ETC.

The ar­ti­fi­cial or­gan­ism, a mere mi­crobe, is the brain­child of re­search­ers at the Rock­ville, Md.-based J. Craig Ven­ter In­sti­tute. The or­gan­iz­a­tion is named for its found­er and CEO, the ge­net­icist who led the pri­vate sec­tor race to map the hu­man ge­nome in the late 1990s. 

The re­search­ers filed their pat­ent claim on the ar­ti­fi­cial or­gan­ism and on its ge­nome. Ge­net­i­cally mo­di­fied life forms have been pa­tented be­fore; but this is the first pa­tent claim for a crea­ture whose genome might be created chem­i­cally from scratch, Mooney said.

Sci­en­tists at the in­sti­tute de­signed the bac­te­ri­um to have a “min­i­mal ge­nome”—the small­est set of genes any or­gan­ism can live on. 

The proj­ect, which be­gan in the early 2000s, was partly a phil­o­soph­i­cal ex­er­cise: to help de­fine life it­self bet­ter by iden­ti­fy­ing its bare-bones re­quire­ments. But it was al­so fraught with com­mer­cial pos­si­bil­i­ties: if one could re­liably rec­re­ate a stand­ard­ized, min­i­mal life form, oth­er use­ful genes could be added in as needed for var­i­ous pur­poses.

For in­stance, “If we made an or­gan­ism that pro­duced fu­el, that could be the first billion- or trillion-dollar or­gan­ism,” said Ven­ter in the June 4 is­sue of Newsweek mag­a­zine. The sci­en­tists based the de­sign on the bac­te­ri­um My­coplasma gen­i­tal­ium, in which they had iden­ti­fied an es­ti­mat­ed 265 to 350 co­re genes re­quired for life. 

Oth­er re­search­ers, pur­su­ing si­m­i­lar re­search with oth­er spe­cies, have since claimed to be able to re­duce this so-called min­i­mal gene some­what fur­ther. The bound­a­ry of what’s really the “min­i­mum” gets fuzzy be­cause some of these pared-down crea­tures are so ge­net­ic­ally chal­lenged that they hang on to life only with a lot of help. 

In their U.S. pat­ent ap­plica­t­ion pub­lished May 31, In­sti­tute sci­en­tists chose a some­what more ro­bust 381 to 386 genes as their “min­i­mal ge­nome” for a hy­po­thet­i­cal mi­crobe, based on M. gen­i­tal­ium, but dubbed My­coplasma lab­o­r­a­to­rium.

In prac­tice, the or­gan­ism is “be­ing pat­ented for what it is not,” ETC said in a state­ment this week.

In the pat­ent ap­plica­t­ion, the sci­en­tists al­so dis­cussed the pos­si­bil­ity of cre­at­ing the genes from scratch us­ing chem­i­cal meth­ods, then in­ject­ing these in­to a cell whose own ge­nome has been re­moved. Wheth­er that has ac­tu­ally been done yet is un­clear, but “many peo­ple think Ven­ter’s company has the sci­en­tif­ic ex­pert­ise to do the job,” said Mooney.

“The same pat­ent ap­plica­t­ion has been pub­lished in­terna­t­ionally to be sub­mit­ted at over 100 na­tional pat­ent of­fices,” said ETC’s Jim Thom­as in an e­mail. 

The Ven­ter In­sti­tute did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment. But Venter and colleagues have ar­gued that the stripped-down cell or other syn­thetic mi­crobes could be use­ful in tasks rang­ing from gen­er­at­ing cheap en­ergy to aid­ing in ag­ri­cul­ture and cli­mate change re­med­ia­tion.

By cre­at­ing a man-made or­gan­ism as a plat­form for oth­er genes to be added at will, like soft­ware on a com­put­er, “Ven­ter’s en­ter­prises are po­si­tion­ing them­selves to be the Mi­crosoft of syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy,” ETC said in a state­ment.

The or­gan­iz­a­tion claimed there could be draw­backs to al­low­ing one company to mo­nop­o­lize this in­forma­t­ion. For in­stance, the mi­crobe could be har­nessed to build a vir­u­lent path­o­gen, Thom­as said. 

It could be a b­low for “o­pen source” bi­ol­o­gy – the idea that re­search­ers should have free ac­cess to the fun­da­men­tal tools and com­po­nents of syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy, the new and grow­ing sci­ence of re-de­signing and re-building nat­u­ral bi­o­log­i­cal sys­tems from the ground up for var­i­ous pur­poses.

“Be­fore these claims go for­ward, so­ci­e­ty must con­sid­er their far-reach­ing so­cial, eth­i­cal and en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts,” Thom­as wrote in the e­mail. In its state­ment, the ETC Group said it will be writ­ing to Ven­ter, to the U.S. Pat­ent Of­fice and the World In­tel­lec­tu­al Prop­er­ty Or­gan­iz­a­tion urg­ing them to quash the pat­ent ef­fort un­til such a pub­lic de­bate takes place.