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First patent claimed on man-made life form, and challenged

June 7, 2007
Special to World Science  

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.


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An advocacy group is trying to shoot down a patent application on what could be the first wholly man-made organism. The idea of owning a species breaches “a societal boundary,” said said Pat Mooney of the Ottawa, Canada-based ETC Group, which is challenging the patent claim. The notion of owning an organism, he added, means that “for the first time, God has competition.” 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. Scientists at the institute designed the bacterium, dubbed Mycoplasma laboratorium, to have a “minimal genome”—the smallest set of genes that 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 immediately respond to requests for comment. 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. Finally, it could theoretically open the way for patenting plants, animals and people, according to ETC group. “Before these claims go forward, society must consider their far-reaching social, ethical and environmental impacts,” Thomas wrote in the email. In the 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.