A top UK scientist who helped sequence the human genome has said efforts to patent the first synthetic life form would give its creator a monopoly on a range of genetic engineering.

Colonies of the transformed Mycoplasma mycoides bacterium. Image Credit: J. Craig Venter Institute.

For the first time, the controversial geneticist credited with creating life in a laboratory has been accused of attempting to get a “monopoly” on new DNA techniques. Dr Venter, the US genetics pioneer, and his team announced last week that they had made a completely new “synthetic” life form from a mix of chemicals. The man-made single celled organism, nicknamed Synthia, is able to multiply, one of the definitions of being alive.
Venter said last week his discovery could create a “new industrial revolution”. He hopes to engineer bacteria which could create medicines, fuels-or even absorb greenhouse gas emissions. Critics said these claims were overstated. Professor Sir John Sulston says that a successful attempt by Craig Venter to patent his techniques could give him a monopoly which would inhibit the progress of science. Now Sulston has launched a media war, speaking to the BBC about Venter’s patent applications.
This is not the first time the two men have clashed: 10 years ago they headed rival teams racing to map the entire human genome for the first time. Sulston’s was government and charity-funded and made all its data public; Vente’s was private enterprise, and sought to patent particularly useful sequences of the genome. Sulston was publicly critical then of Venter’s privatizing approach and defiantly kept his own data public to undermine the commercial value of the US team’s work. After public outcry on both sides of the Atlantic, Venter’s organization withdrew its patent applications. Speaking at the Royal Society in London, Sulston said that his objection to patents on genes from existing living organisms is that they are”discoveries” not inventions. He believes that patenting such breakthroughs stifles further scientific discovery. However, a spokesman for JCVI said there was no possibility of Venter’s applications leading to a monopoly: He added that the Venter Institute was committed to” open dialogue and discussion on all issues surrounding synthetic genomics.
The study details an increased use of patents by researchers.
“My objections to patenting human genes or genes from existing living organisms is that they are inventions or discoveries” said Professor Sulston. “The problem has become much worse since I raised the issue 10 years ago.” He believes that the over-use of patents is inhibiting research that could otherwise greatly benefit society, such as better healthcare for the poor. Professor Sulston commented :”It’s fashionable to think that it’s important to have strong intellectual property and that it’s essential for promoting innovation. But there’s no evidence that it does promote innovation. There’s an unwillingness to consider any problems.”
But he also believes that these arguments are now beginning to be accepted. Last November, a US company, Myriad Genetics, lost parts of its patent rights on two breast cancer genes following a legal challenge by civil rights groups. Negatively stained transmission electron micrographs of dividing M. mycoides JCVI-syn1. Freshly fixed cells were stained using 1% uranyl acetate on pure carbon substrate visualized using JEOL 1200EX transmission electron microscope at 80 keV. Electron micrographs were provided by Tom Deerinck and Mark Ellisman of the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research at the University of California at San Diego.