I was going to lead this week with something completely different, but I have just heard the US supreme court has rejected the idea that human genes can be patented. Apparently they could not see how something that was a “product of nature” could be protected in this way. This has implications across biology. Up until now both US and EU patent law allow patenting of genes in plants (and presumably other organisms) if the the gene was sufficiently “isolated” from the organism. There was an extraordinary case of Monsanto taking a Canadian farmer to court after they noticed he was using “roundup” resistant canola. [It fell into his field by mistake and he noticed it survived roundup so he collected the seed and used it the next year. Astonishingly Monsanto came round and tested the canola in the area to use if anyone was using GM canola without paying and took him to court. They won and this helped confirm that genes could be patented]. What’s the difference in law between a plant gene and a human gene?
As we posted on our Facebook page a week or so ago there is a concern that large agro companies will patent more plants and genomes. There is a move to sequence many plant genomes on crops much used in the developing world and publish the sequences so that they cannot be patented. This does not just relate to GM. Genome sequencing is so easy now products of conventional plant breeding can be sequenced to look for useful traits, speeding up the conventional plant breeding process. With food supplies under pressure as never before we do want farmers anywhere paying for a limited numbers of varieties under the control of the likes of Monsanto. In addition many bacteria could have useful genes to make limited (see our book) quantities of bio-derived materials.
As a biologist this ruling seems logical and just. It does preclude companies making money from the innovations around the gene(s), just they cannot own the genes. Its time for another look at the law concerning plant genes.