Open Source Biology Issues with Patents

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From Humanitarian-FOSS Project Development Site


Synthetic Biology

A new scientific field is in the works called synthetic biology. It refers to the design of biological components currently inexistent in the natural world. It attempts to redesign and improve current biological components as well. The application is used primarily in engineering: engineering biology. The key to fully understanding the world around us is being able to learn from it, design, and redesign it in a way that allows for harnessing its power. [1]

There are many applications of synthetic biology. Here are just a few from

  • humans that photosynthesize
  • photosynthetic oil factories
  • carbon nanotube building/binding
  • assembling very small things
  • biologically compatible miniature cameras
  • age reversal
  • disease fighting
  • implantable living battery for medical device

What's the Problem?

There are three major issues that researchers, like Professor Drew Endy, have run into throughout their work. The "bulkinization" of machines used in the field. Different people own the rights to different functions/technologies/machines, and then scientists must get their permission and pay the cost of rights, and the machine or technology itself. A good programming example is if someone owned the semicolon, and someone else owned the parentheses...every time anyone wanted to write a program, they had to get permission and perhaps pay dues to the owner. [2]

The information and technologies that biologists need are expensive, and the companies that make them likely make a lot of money selling them, and so are probably not interested in the open source concept.

Biologists want the rights to reuse and reengineer technology and information. Is open source licensing the key?

Open Source

Endy helped found the BioBricks Foundation, an aid in open source biology: "BBF encourages the development and responsible use of technologies based on BioBrickā„¢ standard DNA parts that encode basic biological functions. " These are provided free of charge to anyone. People can see, use, and add their own parts to the Registry of Standard Biological Parts at MIT. The current draft of the legal scheme of the BioBricks Foundation, written in January of 2008, is as follows:

1. You are free to modify, improve, and use all BioBrick parts, in systems with other BioBricks parts or non-BioBrick genetic material. 2. If you release a product, commercially or otherwise, that contains BioBrick parts or was produced using BioBrick parts, then you must make freely available the information about all BioBrick parts used in the product, or in producing the product, both for preexisting BioBrick parts and any new or improved BioBrick parts. You do not need to release information about any non-BioBrick material used in the system. 3. By using BioBrick parts, you agree to not encumber the use of BioBrick parts, individually or in combination, by others. The BioBricks Foundation: Legal

Open source licensing would help in this field. With the right tools, the applications of DNA synthesis can become realities. It would allow researchers to get things done faster and at a much lower cost than right now. They would not have to wait months to get permission from all different companies, pay fees...and the synthetic biology field would prosper and gain both respect and the tools needed to do things such as age reversal or redesigning bacteria to help the human immune system.


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