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Synthetic Life-Form, Patent Pending

Can you believe that a company filed for a patent on a living species? The J. Craig Venter Institute created the first form of synthetic or “artificial life,” a bacterium named Mycoplasma laboratorium and filed in the US to own all rights to the life-form.

The bacteria could be released in the upper atmosphere, absorbing carbon dioxide in the battle against global warming. The process could also be used to create cures for life threatening illnesses. You can use your imagination as to the big bucks that would be behind one of those applications.

Yet problems arise when you try to apply patent law that was created during the industrial era. A patent can be filed when something novel or new is introduced to a product or invention. That’s fine and dandy when you have a device like the cordless telephone, but doesn’t apply so well with nuances like man-made microorganisms.

A company could very well file for patents for a range of lifeforms, successfully blocking innovations by future scientists. Imagine, every time someone wants to use one of these bacteria in a lab they’d have to obtain the proper permission. Anything that resulted as a breakthrough could be construed to be owned by the original patent holder.

With the halt to innovation aside, there are also broad moral implications.  Today it’s ownership of a bacterial strain, tomorrow it could be a more complex organism. The snowball effect could be shocking. That’s why something needs to be done now to bring these laws into modernity, before it’s too late.


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