Image via J Craig Venter Institute
Last week we caught word that Dr. Craig Venter and team have developed the first self-replicating cell to be made from synthesized DNA. In other words, they created the first living thing out of DNA dreamed up entirely by a handful of humans and a computer - which is now nicknamed "Synthia." Now, the Venter Institute is trying to patent this first synthetic life form, but other scientists are speaking up - primarily Professor John Sulston, a pioneer of genomics, who says that a patent would be extremely damaging to any future genome research.
The BBC reports that Professor Sulston of University of Manchester, said "I hope very much these patents won't be accepted because they would bring genetic engineering under the control of the J Craig Venter Institute (JCVI). They would have a monopoly on a whole range of techniques."
Prof. Sulston and Dr. Venter have previously had disputes over intellectual property issues surrounding the human genome project, as both were racing to sequence the genome in 2000 - Venter from the private sector, and Suston from a government and charity-backed effort that wanted to make the genome freely available to all scientists. Whereas Venter would have charged scientists for access to the data, strictly limiting who would be able to study it based on financial abilities, Sulston promoted open access. Thankfully, Sulston won.
Though now, "synthetic" life might be proprietary.
A spokesman for Dr Venter said, "There are a number of companies working in the synthetic genomic/biology space and also many academic labs. Most if not all of these have likely filed some degree of patent protection on a variety of aspects of their work so it would seem unlikely that any one group, academic centre or company would be able to hold a 'monopoly' on anything."
Sulston stresses that the problem is that genes from living organisms aren't inventions or discoveries, and that patents are being overused, inhibiting research.
A concern not addressed in the debate goes beyond research and into unintended consequences as the research is used. How might this research be applied to the world, and what might happen as a result of using synthetic lifeforms - life dreamed up by humans at computers - and releasing them alongside life that evolved on the planet? Sure, this is many years down the road before it is a real issue, since scientists are still working on the levels of algae rather than mammals, but still, a potential impact on ecosystems is very real.
As these questions were raised a couple years ago, the Venter Institute came up with a report addressing the concerns. From a 2007 post on TreeHugger, "Venter dismissed these concerns by arguing that proper enforcement standards would help negate such threats and - more importantly - by claiming that the positive ramifications would far outweigh any potential negatives." However, it will take more than a report outlining the concerns and responses to them, and a reliance on "enforcement standards" to appease - and be proactive about - the potential problems this could cause for the planet.
Here is a 2008 TED Talk featuring Craig Venter speaking on syntheic life and biofuels:
Have questions about synthetic life? Discovery's Science Channel is premiering Creating Synthetic Life: Your Questions Answered on Thursday, June 3, 2010, at 9 PM (ET). This one-hour special is an open forum discussion featuring Dr. Venter, leading bioethicists, top scientists and other members of the scientific community discussing the breakthrough's ramifications and how it may change our world and the future.
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More on Synthetic Life
Getting a Patent on Life?
We Have Life, Says Venter
TED Video: Craig Venter on Synthetic Life and Making Fuel from CO2
First Synthetic, Self-Replicating Cell Created with Manmade DNA