Activists and researchers alike are concerned that patents involving the new technology of creating synthetic life could lock up exciting new avenues of bio-research solely for commercial gain. J. Craig Venter, a pioneer of such research, is praised as an innovator and criticized as an arrogant egomaniac. But hey, if you’ve created life, wouldn’t it be tempting to see yourself as a God?
The term “synthetic” life could be considered a misnomer, however. The process of taking an existing cell, wiping out its genome, and then replacing it with a synthesized genome could be considered an engineered variation of existing life, although the implications are impressive in either case. Now rumors are circulating that Venter's group has already achieved this feat, and are only awaiting publication of a scientific paper before making the formal announcement. Earlier this year, Venter publicly stated that his team was very close to success, which he said “will be one of the bright milestones in human history, changing our conceptual view of life.”
But others don’t see current developments from such a “bright” perspective. Patent applications by Venter and his associates were filed in November, for Synthetic genomes and Installation of genomes or partial genomes into cells or cell-like systems. One clause mentions "obtaining a genome that is not within a cell; and introducing the genome into a cell or cell-like system." 17 other clauses expand that claim to nearly every other imaginable form of potential for DNA or membrane-contained space. Other clauses expand the claim about DNA to a huge range of DNA molecule sizes, including most of the sizes convenient for biologists to work with.
The ETC Group, and others, claims this is an unfair attempt by Ventor’s group to dominate synthetic life. They believe Venter’s group is attempting to create a "Microbesoft" monopoly that will significantly hinder the field of bioresearch.
"It appears that Craig Venter's lawyers have constructed a legal rats' nest of monopoly claims that may entangle the entire field of synthetic biology," ETC's Jim Thomas said in a statement.
Due to vague phrasing, the patents could even potentially cover somatic cell nuclear transplant, a technique for creating embryonic stem cells, for example. Researchers worry that the patents overlap in several key areas with existing work. If licensing issues do crop up, it’s likely that a barrage of university and biotech industry lawyers would quickly (and most likely successfully) challenge the validity of such far-reaching patents.
Aside from the controversial patenting issues. An equally heated controversy circles around whether synthetic life technology poses too many risks to justify any potential benefits in the first place. Nobel Prize winner David Baltimore has noted one of the many concerns of synthetic biology.
“I think viruses are the major focus of concern,” explained Baltimore in a Technology Review interview. “They are relatively simple to make and control and some are quite lethal. Smallpox, for example, is very potent, and we are not protected against it. The smallpox sequence is published, so you could recover it by synthesis if you had the lab facilities to do that. But getting the pieces of DNA to make smallpox is not a backyard experiment. You need a large lab with significant bio-safety precautions. I don't see this as something that would happen clandestinely in the U.S., but a well-funded lab outside of this country could do something quite nefarious.”
However, the general consensus in the scientific community is that the field of synthetic life merits further research for potential beneficial applications, so long as there is a good deal of safety precautions vigilantly employed.
Posted by Rebecca Sato
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