Synthetic Biology and Licensing Ethics

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From Humanitarian-FOSS Project Development Site

What is Synthetic Biology and Why is it Important?

Synthetic Biology is a combination of biology, chemistry, engineering and programming, in which the goal is to build or synthesize new parts of DNA (new genomes) in order to create new biological functions and systems. It is a step forward and a step back, as it moves into uncharted territory, but also suggests that we start at the beginning again and attempt to synthesize these new functions/systems in order to better understand and interact with our environment. However, some issues in licensing (as well as in other areas) have made it harder for the synthetic biology movement to flourish. Synthetic biology needs “a library of basic biological functions that can be used over and over again in combination”. However, many of those functions are “owned” by other people through their patents. In order, then, for someone to synthesize a new function or system, they will need to spend a prohibitive amount of time appealing to these people for permission to use the patented/licensed functions. Endy suggests a more open forum for sharing information while protecting legal rights.

Can open source licensing help in this situation, and will it succeed?

Open source licensing could help in this situation, although it does seem that Mr. Endy's presentation did spark quite the reaction in the synthetic biology community and there have been several feasible proposals since then. However, these ideas at least loosely follow the open source licensing model insofar as they permit information to be used by people in commercial and non-commercial settings (like the GNU manifesto and how it allows you to use OS ideas for profit). In this, I think the proposals that have been made so far for the synthetic biology movement are good ones—scientists would ideally like to still be able to profit from their discoveries, and this licensing is no impediment to that; even better, though, while allowing profits it still mandates that the information be freely accessible to others. Of course, it will take a consensus before this kind of licensing takes root and allows for the formation of that “library” of basic biological features, but I think that it will be successful.

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