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Biotech Patents Science

Venter Institute Claims Patent on Synthetic Life 163

Posted by Zonk
from the we-made-you-we-can-unmake-you dept.
jimsnail writes "J. Craig Venter and the Institute that bears his name are again moving into new territory in the field of genetics. Genetic patents, that is. They are seeking a broad patent that would give them ownership of a 'free living organism that can grow and replicate' constructed entirely from synthetic DNA. The ETC Group is challenging the claim. '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.'"
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Venter Institute Claims Patent on Synthetic Life

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  • That's okay (Score:3, Insightful)

    by morgan_greywolf (835522) * on Thursday June 07, 2007 @03:17PM (#19428781) Homepage Journal
    I just patented DNA replication. That's right. J. Craig Vetner, along with everyone else here, must pay up now, be sued, or die.

    • by WilliamSChips (793741) <full@infinity.gmail@com> on Thursday June 07, 2007 @03:30PM (#19429037) Journal
      Soviet Russia called to collect their patent dues. They just patented YOU!
    • by Anonymous Coward
      Patents are a means of preventing people from making productive use of the technology and information available to them. This creates artificial scarcity, which ultimately makes a lot of money for a very few people. It also technologically and practically impoverishes the rest of the world (by preventing collaboration and also production).

      I am very familiar with the economic arguments about needing to secure a return on investment, and they are bunk. The most glaring part of it is the fallacy of excluded
      • by ahfoo (223186)
        You're absolutely right. I have no problem whatsoever with people "playing God" which seems to be part of the angle the ETC Group is taking. I think this is a recurring theme in biotech where we have people who detest these patents as a further abuse in the name of intellectual property on the one hand and on the other hand we've got these people who profess some kind of vague conservative religious fear of competing with a creator God who is somehow jealous of human knowledge. These two positions are world
      • I am very familiar with the economic arguments about needing to secure a return on investment, and they are bunk.
        You know, when you explain it like that, it all falls into place and makes sense. Count me as converted!
  • Gerbluh? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by AdmiralWeirdbeard (832807) on Thursday June 07, 2007 @03:17PM (#19428795)
    Uh, doesnt that seem rather overbroad? I mean, there's nothing about methodology, just 'we own any synthetic life.' What utter bullshit. Why dont they try to patent nonsynthetic life while they're at it?
    • Re:Gerbluh? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by UbuntuDupe (970646) on Thursday June 07, 2007 @03:26PM (#19428969) Journal
      It's not much different from "we own anything that results in being able to make an online purchase via one click."
      • No. It'd be more like "We own anything online."
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          I feel like there should be some bad chat/leet speak in there though, to really hammer home how stupid of an idea it is.

          like, "We OWNz teH tUbes!!!!1!" or something.

          At the very least this fails obviousness test until they have methodology. Like they were the first people ever to have the idea to make a synthetic organism that reproduces and propagates itself through a genetic code. Given that's how natural life works, seems like a bit of a no brainer.

          I hope the patent is rejected with a "DUrrrrrr" stamp o
    • by PhysicsPhil (880677) on Thursday June 07, 2007 @03:38PM (#19429173)

      From the article: "The researchers filed their patent claim on the artificial organism and on its genome."

      These guys have created a brand new form of life from the ground up and are patenting their particular genome. It's hard work, and certainly not obvious or trivial. Given that other biological systems are patentable (e.g., the Harvard mouse, new strains of wheat), this certainly seems to clear the bar for patentability.

      • by AdmiralWeirdbeard (832807) on Thursday June 07, 2007 @03:42PM (#19429237)
        Granted, however it reads as though it seeks to cover any and all future synthetic life as well. By defining terms in such a broad fashion, they leave little room for others to follow, regardless of methodology. And that's bullcrap.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by DRJlaw (946416)
          Granted, however it reads as though it seeks to cover any and all future synthetic life as well.... And that's bullcrap.

          No it does not. It reads as follows:

          Claim 1. A set of protein-coding genes that provides the information required for growth and replication of a free-living organism under axenic conditions in a rich bacterial culture medium, wherein the set lacks at least 40 of the 101 protein-coding genes listed in Table 2, or functional equivalents thereof, wherein at least one of the genes in Table 4
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by ywl (22227)
            I'm not a molecular biologist, nor a patent lawyer...

            If I read between the lines correctly, they have a rough idea of the functions of 482 genes of a bacteria. They think that 101 of them are non-essential for survial and 381 are for protein encoding (how many genes aren't?).

            They want to patent the guess and ask any people who create new strains of bacteria base on that tiny bit of knowledge to pay up?!

            Can you do that?
          • Still seems overly broad to me.

            Say someone else understands life better than Venter and comes up with a more mininal gene - is this patent going to cover that? What if the discoverer (hard to call cutting back on nature an invention) of the more minimal gene then wants to use it as a base for experimentation and add other stuff back in - they may well find themselves infringing this patent. What this patent does is cut out a huge swathe of the genetic landscape and say "that's mine" - you can't experiment t
          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            Well, patent attorney i may not be, but RTFA i did, so you can take your arrogant "knowing the mere basics" bullshit and shove it.

            TFA did mention very specifically that this patent application was for the minimum genes necessary for life. Now while in the specific instance, they are merely trying to patent the genome of this single microbe. But given their stated intentions to use that then as the building block for engineering other single-celled organisms by simply dropping in the necessary genes, thi

            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              by DRJlaw (946416)
              Yes, you RTFAed. But you didn't RTFP. Spreading misinformation is a mistake. Correcting posters who realize that it is misinformation when you do not understand the basic facts is irresponsible. I will not keep this information to myself, and you've earned the public embarrassment that's upset you so.

              I prosecute and litigate patents for a living. Your bluster concerning my ability to "muddle through a patent application" does not cure your error. Neither does your reliance on "TFA," which is egregious
              • Yes, you RTFAed. But you didn't RTFP. Spreading misinformation is a mistake. Correcting posters who realize that it is misinformation when you do not understand the basic facts is irresponsible. I will not keep this information to myself, and you've earned the public embarrassment that's upset you so.

                I heartily encourage you to continue correcting misinformation. I am not suggesting that you keep any information to yourself. I'm not embarrassed at all. I am perfectly comfortable being corrected when I'

    • The patent madness (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Esteanil (710082)

      Uh, doesnt that seem rather overbroad?

      It's interesting, really. Both the US and the EU patent offices are more than happy to give out patents that are *way* overbroad.
      Presumably, this is a part of the transition to an "IP economy", and they've been instructed to keep lower standards as to make sure most of the IP cake has been divided before the international competition becomes too rough.
      And then they use heavy-handed tactics to force other countries to submit, misusing the Berne convention [wikipedia.org] and the WTO

      • What does this madness really cost us?


        The future. In a world where nobody is free to innovate, develop, invent, produce, or brainstorm, there is only one inevitable result: stagnation.
    • I've filed my patent for the inert gas we know as air. If they want to be able to breathe, they'll have to license their patent to me in exchange for using my patented product.

      2 cents,

      QueenB.
      • I've filed my patent for the inert gas we know as air. If they want to be able to breathe
        If it's inert it won't be much use for that, will it?
    • It sounds to me like they are patenting a specific organism, not the concept of building one from scratch. I could be wrong about that, but that's how I read it. While it it is derived from a natural organism with much stuff removed, it seems more palatable to me than patenting regular food with one or two features added. I don't like either practice, but this seems less bad than what Monsanto is doing.

      If they are patenting the "organism from scratch" concept, then the problem doesn't seem to be ethical,
      • by ppanon (16583)

        Sure, the guys had a lock on a revolutionary new industry for some time. Then like all good "IP" it expired.

        Yep and for most of those 20 years development in that field stagnated until the patent was expropriated by the Army during the First World War. Public Key Cryptography deployment also stagnated during the 17 years it was covered by patent.

        Now, it's arguable that PKI might not have been developed if it were not for patents, but there were plenty of people who would have been willing to push forward th

    • Uh, doesnt that seem rather overbroad? I mean, there's nothing about methodology, just 'we own any synthetic life.' What utter bullshit. Why dont they try to patent nonsynthetic life while they're at it?

      The patent application [uspto.gov] looks pretty specific to me, actually.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 07, 2007 @03:18PM (#19428809)
    You can't hug your children with synthetic DNA arms!
  • by geekoid (135745)
    now hold the responsible for anything that happens from any synthetic life. Lets see how fast the back peddle.
    • by stjobe (78285)
      Here you go: m y
      You're welcome!
    • I mean, these synthetics have got to be smart enough to run for Congress, or do other jobs humans won't do.
    • now hold them responsible for anything that happens from any synthetic life. Lets see how fast the back peddle.

      They are already responsible for that. Everyone is responsible for the consequences of their actions.

      There are fundamental problems patenting life. Life replicates itself, life is not an invention and human life should never be owned.

      Patents work by keeping people from making the patented article. Applying a patent to an article which reproduces itself is silly. Anyone who owns such an ob

  • by Red Flayer (890720) on Thursday June 07, 2007 @03:21PM (#19428881) Journal
    If God (or someone else) did truly intelligently design life, that would mean all life forms are synthetic. Hence, prior art exists.

    Did I just discover a scientifically *useful* application of ID wack-theory? If so, is the universe going to implode, or am I about to be flamed to fiery hell by people who never evolved a sarcasmeter?
    • If nothing else, I think Xenu [wikipedia.org] can claim prior art on this one.
    • This is great.
      Either you get the politicos to agree and patents like this are made void, or you get them to admit ID is crap. Either way, nerds win!
      Oh wait, we've made the common flawed assumption: People reason logically.
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward
        I'd still reference The Bible as prior art when disputing the patent.
    • Flame On!

      </sarcasm>
    • by incer (1071224)
      I wonder if I can license my DNA under the GPL. Do I have to attach license.txt or can I link to the GNU website?
      • Perhaps everyone should patent their own genomes. (Would the lack of having the actual sequence be a problem for the patent office? Hard to believe.) Then everyone could sue everyone else for infringing.

        • by pmc (40532)
          Just sign the patent application in blood. Then they'll have your DNA sequence.
      • by russ1337 (938915)
        As long as you provide the source code (?) when you spread your seed?

        You'll have to give those dna spectrum pictures to those dirty girls you visit. They'll be like WTF is this?
        • by neomunk (913773)
          "Yeah baby, that's my Source right there, now let me show you how I compile..."
          or, after discovering your date is a transvestite
          "Whoa there now, I don't support your platform... I'm no cross-compiler"

          Stuff like that, not to mention all the 'optimized for speed' jokes that could be made.
    • Just writing down speculation on creating life should be enough, shouldn't it? I mean, it has to be non-obvious and the current test for that is whether or not they wrote it down at some point. How does the bible not destroy this patent, much less the ridiculous amount of speculation on being able to create life with biology. This patent's dead in the water unless their methodology gets around that.
  • by PortHaven (242123) on Thursday June 07, 2007 @03:27PM (#19428979) Homepage
    Sorry, you were patented....please pay $xx,xxx.xx in order to continue living!
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Mistlefoot (636417)
      We do pay $xx,xxx.xx to continue living. It's called taxes. Or at least we do in Canada. In 2000 per the Fraser Institute the average family paid $25,000/year.

      source
      http://oldfraser.lexi.net/media/media_releases/200 1/20010613.html
      • by timeOday (582209)

        Canada. In 2000 per the Fraser Institute the average family paid $25,000/year.
        Suckers! Why not just let your government borrow all the money it wants from China? The negative economic consequences are delayed, therefore they don't count. It's foolproof!
    • And dont forget my pay expiration fee now that I have patented Death.
  • The institute has also purchased Ventnor Ave. and is in the process of putting up several pricey Hotels. A sign in the front window of the first reads, "No Shoes, No hat, No service." The local dog could not be reached for comment and the car was in jail at the time.
  • My god. I can't believe they went ahead and patented sperm from someone who's been *hiccup* drinking and using Viagra
  • This reminds me of the story of the person that tried to patent boiling water, no one had done it before so it was worth a try wasn't it?

    If anyone at the patent office lets this pass he/she should get whacked with the giant hammer of reason. You can't go around getting patents for entire fields of science.
  • by stjobe (78285) on Thursday June 07, 2007 @03:29PM (#19429017) Homepage
    Here's [uspto.gov] the patent application.
    • Prior art.. von Neumann?
    • [0002] Aspects of this invention were made with government support (DOE grant number DE-FG02-02ER63453). The government has certain rights in the invention.

      For that reason alone, it should not be patentable.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by OeLeWaPpErKe (412765)
      Congratulations on attempting to insert sanity into this slashdot "discussion". The patent, obviously, lists exactly the genes it intends to use, and as such, is quite difficult to duplicate.

      If this is really the minimal set (which seems kind of unlikely), I would even call it a huge accomplishment.

      Anyway this patent seems to be exactly what a patent was meant to do. It describes a complex invention, and it describes it in a very detailed way. I don't see anything wrong with it. This is the biological versi
    • "Anagrams for "United States of America": Neofascism Attitude Era, Me See Faustian Dictator, Satanic Federates, I'm Out"

      Do you seriously [frontlinedefenders.org] believe [iran-press-service.com] that ?

      Try to live in the real world. I do think that indeed, you live in a dream world, under dictators, however, bush is not your dictator.
      • by stjobe (78285)
        Do I seriously believe what?

        Those are indeed anagrams for "United States of America".
        I find them funny. I see that you don't.
        Maybe you should lighten up a bit.

        And work on your punctuation, that last sentence is an abomination.

        As for the anagrams themselves:
        Neofascism attitudes are ripe in the US [google.com]
        Consider this list [secularhumanism.org]:
        1. Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism.
        2. Disdain for the importance of human rights.
        3. Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause.
        4. The supremacy of t
  • heh (Score:4, Funny)

    by wizardforce (1005805) on Thursday June 07, 2007 @03:31PM (#19429059) Journal
    ok then I'll patent a critical gene that this guy has in his DNA and pull a MAFIAA on him if he reproduces. then have genes renamed "files" and if he ever tries to hire a hooker it'll be illegal file sharing :)
  • Hmm... (Score:1, Funny)

    by Mockylock (1087585)
    Who owns the patent on life in southern West Virginia?

    I've been there a few times, and there are quite a few living on the minimum requirements for gene usage.
  • Mixed Reaction (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jefu (53450) on Thursday June 07, 2007 @03:32PM (#19429069) Homepage Journal

    My reaction to this is mixed. First, I'm suspicious of this kind of sweeping patent protection in general. And it is far from clear (in the cited article at least) that they actually have such a genome yet, so patent protection seems strange. "We think we are going to do this, so grant us a patent."

    On the other hand it may take 20 years or so to actually be able to use this kind of technology in meaningful ways (and have drugs produced this way approved by the government). So granting patent protection now means that it would expire just about the time that people might be able to take advantage of it.

    On the other other hand, if they really are patenting the idea, they'll probably re-patent (or extend the patent with new claims or however that works) any usable variation when they actually get it so they're likely to find ways to stretch such patent protection out for quite a while.

    • by Kristoph (242780)
      The issue is that the patent can be interpret to include any organisms that lacks the genes they have identified as non-essential to life.

      It's not just an issue of drugs. It's also for the manufacturing opportunities that this offers. One example would be a organism that cheaply creates ethanol or hydrogen from biomass.

      ]{
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by ciroknight (601098)
      Well, the patent is pretty clear about what it's "inventing". They state they take the Mycoplasma genitalium bacteria (which is the smallest discovered natural free-living bacteria), and then strip out about 101 genes (which they list in a table), leaving 381 genes plus or minus a 3 or 4 genes.

      The question is, have they actually made this bacteria, and does it actually live, reproduce and die like a bacteria should? At this point it's not clear they invented anything, more than just taking a bacteria, re
  • Would someone out there with time please recreate the badger-badger/mushroom-mushroom flash animation with the following:

    (badgers, badgers, badgers becomes) patents, patents, patents
    (mushroom, mushroom becomes) lawsuit, lawsuit
    (snake part goes) Out-of Court settlement! Settlement ... settlement... settllllment

    Etc.

    Thanks. I have no skills.

    Cheers,

    Mike...
  • by creimer (824291) on Thursday June 07, 2007 @03:36PM (#19429143) Homepage
    Karen Travis SF books [wordpress.com] about a future Earth where all life has been patented and copyrighted to the point that it's illegal to have unaltered seeds is starting to become true.
  • by Vellmont (569020) on Thursday June 07, 2007 @03:39PM (#19429183) Homepage
    Venter isn't claiming a patent on the entire concept of synthetic life, he's claiming a patent on A synthetic life form. As the article says, patents on genetically modified life forms aren't anything new. What's new is this is a life form created entirely from scratch (or at least as much from scratch as you can get when you already know how other life works).
    • by qw0ntum (831414)
      What stops this particular organism from naturally coming into being through good ol' evolution? Even if this exact organism does not, what is to stop other, more complex "synthetic life forms" from naturally coming into being? I pity the fool who gets sued for infringement over some "synthetic life patent": "Take him down, he's got an identical bacteria to our synthetic one in his intestine! He must be breeding them for commercial purposes!"

      It's happened before if I remember correctly (see Monsanto GM s
    • by dbIII (701233)
      As far as I see it it is still just the patent of a broad idea which has a LOT of prior art for that idea.
    • (or at least as much from scratch as you can get when you already know how other life works)

      You're talking about programs, aren't you!
  • by Anonymous Meoward (665631) on Thursday June 07, 2007 @03:39PM (#19429199)
    ..but I have no life. If anyone wants me, I'm in the basement.
  • Seems as though a patent for artificial life, belonging to one Victor Frankenstein, has already expired. Along with a sub-category submitted by Abby Normal, signed off by The Man with Two Brains.

  • This one will probably bring a very interesting court case into the patent world. Technically it is a patentable idea, but when it comes down to it the courts will probably see how general what they are claiming really is as it is the start of a whole new field of study. It will be interesting to see what happens.
  • I just submitted a patent for synthetic death.

    There's no prior art yet, and it's inevitable.

  • My son.

    I used the GATC encoding scheme.

    All your offspring are belong to me.
  • I patented Creation. That's right. Anything and everything. God's getting a call from my lawyers.
  • They are trying to patent the minimum genome neccesary for this particular bacteria to exist. It's no different than any other attempts to patent the parts or the whole genome of certain organisms. IMHO, it a big deal about nothing, I don't see how is genetically engineered bacteria any different than a patenting a machine that does the same job. The patent is very specific as to the length and variations in the genome sequence and could not be applied (as far as I can tell) to synthetic life in general.
  • Since patents are now 20 years from application date, this presages an interesting court case. What happens if the patent is still in force when this new lifeform is old enough to vote?
  • Ok, so what do we know?
    Lifeforms reproduce themselves, patterning surrounding matter and
    energy into more of their own form.

    Over several billions of years, natural ecosystems have evolved
    checks and balances on overabundance of any particular lifeform.
    Other lifeforms co-evolved and the lifeforms limit each other
    (by eating each other, by competing for the same resources, etc.)

    The ecosystems change, but rather gradually, as many stalemates
    (equilibria) in the energy and strategy balance of the
    competitive pattern
    • by gurps_npc (621217)
      The idea that a human could design a living organic creature that could out-compete the entire rest of the evolutionary biomasses' capacity to compete/eat is laughable.

      Particularly one that would work in all environments. The worst case scenario is making a certain specific bio-culture wierd. (i.e. a creature might be able to rule the -10 to 80 degree life zone, but could not stand temperatures under -30, or over 90, so we just move to canada/florida and kill it during the winter/summer.

  • Is/are God/god/gods referenced as prior art on the patent application?
  • Sounds like they are gearing up for the replicant market.
  • Fool: I hereby wish to patent life.

    Patent official (I hope they are at least this intelligent): What type of life do you wish to patent.

    Fool: NO. I want to patent ALL life.

    Patent Official: Why, there might be prior art.

    Fool: NO, everyone else made "natural life", I am going to patent life that anyone makes, i.e. SYTNETHETIC life.

    Patent Official: Have you heard of God? He is this big, super-powerfull creature that some people think may have created life. That means that all life is synthetic, an

  • by bioman-laserboy (1112841) on Thursday June 07, 2007 @04:58PM (#19430215)
    I'm a GRA in a biomedical lab and took a course once on bioengineering, the topic of the patent.

    As mentioned previously they're not patenting synthetic life but a specific minimal set of genes required to produce a replicating bacterium. There was a non-trivial amount of work that went into researching these genes and determining the least combinations necessary for replication in a solution that provides all the basic building blocks (ie. this bacteria will not be synthesizing its own amino acids, I would imagine).

    This is could be important for industrial biosynthetic applications. Every protein expressed by a bacteria increases its metabolic load and decreases the efficiency with which it can convert input (sugars, amino acids, nucleotides) into the desired output (insulin, drugs, other useful biocompounds). By determining the minimum necessary set of genes for replication a ground-state bacteria has been designed that can be used as the starting point for designing more efficient expression systems.

    It also allows these expression systems to be more fully characterized which can help when attempting to determine and modulate the effect metabolic load and evolution will have on a vat of bacteria as it progresses from generation to generation. One problem with these systems is that synthesizing extra compounds increases the metabolic and decreases the replication rate. If it is possible for the bacteria to mutate and stop expression of the product their metabolic load decreases and they begin to replicate faster; this causes vats of bacteria to tend to evolve such that they stop producing the useful compound. There are ways to get around this (such as turning production on and off using external chemical signals, tying production to survival, etc.) that might be optimized in such a minimal system. Engineering life is tricky because of the extremely high number of potential interactions to be analyzed for every new configuration; it is more difficult because many of these interactions can't be calculated or simulated.

    This patent won't be all that useful for more complex human proteins as these require an array of post-translational modification proteins that change the product after the initial synthesis; thus they require a correspondingly complex expression system derived from a yeast cell or an animal cell (I think some worms have been used to develop complex expression systems); Alternately bacteria can be modified to produce the modification proteins. These expression systems have doubtless already been patented or are no longer patentable, so this new patent probably won't be very useful until it is bundled with a set of associated patents for efficient expression systems for various compounds.
  • ... and should we even regard such creations as living?

    Why not just refer to them as "autonomous bio-chemical machines" and simply avoid the philosophical overhead that is sure to come from claiming you are frankensteining artificial creatures in some dark laboratory located in our back yard?

    I'd question if "Life" is soon going to be someone's registered trademark, but apparently Mikey already squatted it a few decades ago...
  • Minimal life forms have been discovered/done since 1997, at least. One has 54 base pairs. While (like a virus) they need a host, they can reproduce, if one accepts this as a minimal definition of "life". Not sure how this relates to what is being patented, though.

    Reference:

    Eigen and Oehlenschlager, 30 years later - a new approach to Sol Spiegelman's and Leslie Orgel's in vitro evolutionary studies: dedicated to Leslie Orgel on the occasion of his 70th birthday, M. Eigen and F. Oehlensc

    • by quixote9 (999874)
      1) What he said: minimal forms have been known for a while.

      2) Artificial genomes have been made before, both bacterial artificial chromosomes (BACs) and yeast artificial chromosomes (YACs). This is by people who've actually made these things, not just thought it would be a neat idea.

      3) Patenting vague obvious ideas (and this idea is obvious if you have any background in the field) is exactly what Verizon is trying to do by claiming to have patented the concept of voip on a phone. It's also what the
  • If a random patented virus epidemics outbursts, do we have to buy patented drugs?
  • I wonder.... in a million years, will these little fuckers come to the conclusion that intelligent design was a crock of shit?

    *ponders*
  • There are several hundred to several thousand other chemicals that must be working in addtion to DNA before a truly artificial organism is constructed. No one knows all what these are yet. It may take decades to solve this.

    A few throwbacks claim that life can only come from life, i.e. there is some inherent patterns in the cells you just cant recreate from inert chemicals. Other claim some life energy or essence, but I think thats a supersition.

    The previous attempt at synthetic life was some viruses

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