The first patent application for an artificial living organism has recently been filed. Don’t believe me?
From the Economist:
YOU have to hand it to Craig Venter, he is not someone who thinks small. The latest adventure of the man who was the first to sequence the genome of a living organism (three weeks after his grant request to do so was rejected on the grounds it was impossible), the first to publish the genome of an identifiable human being (himself) and the first to conceive the idea of sequencing the genome of an entire ecosystem (and to enjoy a nice cruise across the Pacific Ocean in his yacht while he did so) is curiously reminiscent of the incident that made him a controversial figure in the first place. That was when, 16 years ago, he attempted to patent parts of several hundred genes—the first time anyone had tried to take out a patent on more than one gene at a time.
This time, he is proposing to patent not merely a few genes, but life itself. Not all of life, of course. At least, not yet. Rather, he has applied for a patent on the synthetic bacterium that he and his colleagues Clyde Hutchison and Hamilton Smith have been working on for the past few years.
The patent application itself was filed without fanfare some eight months ago. But it was only at the end of May that the slowly grinding bureaucracy of America’s patent office got round to publishing it. The central claim is to what Dr Venter calls the “minimal bacterial genome”. This is a list of the 381 genes he thinks are needed to keep an organism alive. The list has been assembled by taking the organism he first sequenced, Mycoplasma genitalium, and knocking out each of its 470 genes to see which ones it can manage without.
The theory—and the claim made by the patent—is that by synthesising a string of DNA that has all 381 of these genes, and then putting it inside a “ghost cell” consisting of a cell membrane, along with the bits and pieces of molecular machinery that are needed to read genes and translate them into proteins, an artificial organism will have been created.
As can be expected, this development not without its fair share of controversy:
As Pat Mooney put it, “For the first time, God has competition.” No doubt Dr Venter, hardly famous as a shrinking violet, will be amused by the comparison.
Nevertheless, ETC is hoping to provoke a debate. And to give people a name to hang on to in that debate it suggests nicknaming Mycoplasma laboratorium, as the application calls the putative invention, as “Synthia”. The organisation hopes this name will stick in the popular consciousness in the way that Ian Wilmutt’s cloned sheep Dolly did. Indeed, it is rather a good name. Given the affection that Dolly attracted once the shock of her existence had been absorbed, perhaps Dr Venter – himself no slouch at publicity – will adopt it.