Last week, in a landmark decision that is expected to have far-reaching consequences, the United States Supreme Court announced in a unanimous decision that no part of the human DNA sequence – or the DNA of any living organism – is patentable. This decision came after thirty years of patents being issued on genes for the sake of genetic research, and which was spurred on by recent developments, such as the publication of the human genome.
Specifically, the case came down to a claim made by Myriad Genetics, the company that discovered the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genetic mutations that can lead to higher incidences of breast cancer. They patented these sequences in the hopes of having a lucrative investment when it came to future screenings and treatments. But for many, this signaled that a line was being crossed, and the case went to court.
For critics of Myriad’s attempt to patent the genetic mutations, they claimed that this made screening often prohibitively expensive. Angelina Jolie was one such person, who drew attention to the fact that her mother – who died of breast cancer – and women like her would be unable to afford the treatment if Myriad got it’s way. Myriad fought back by saying that without the possibility of future financial gain, there would be no incentive for companies to sink money into searching for these genes.
In the end, the Supreme Court voted 9 to 0 that genes are products of nature and not human-made inventions, which makes them ineligible for a patent. For many, this decision has temporarily closed Pandora’s Box and prevented corporations from obtaining the right to carve up the human genome and lay claim to it, a process which many believed would lead to monopolies of gene treatments and the potential ownership of human beings themselves.
On the other hand, the court’s ruling did not apply to one other key issue: synthetic genes. Basically, genetic modifications that are made my companies for the sake of modifying foods, agricultural produce, and even animals are still up for grabs. And at least one major corporation is pretty pleased about this. In allowing for synthetic genes to remain a grey area, Monsanto is likely to continue seeking to patent its genetically-modified seeds.
Just over a month ago, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the giant agribusiness in one of the most important lawsuits filed by the company in recent years. In essence, the court’s ruled that an Indiana soybean farmer was infringing on Monsanto’s soybean patent by buying the seeds from a nearby grain elevator and then saving them.
Of the 144 lawsuits filed against 410 farmers and 56 small farm businesses throughout the U.S. in the past few years (according to the Center for Food Safety), this case was especially important. It essentially set the precedent that anyone selling genetically-modified grains had to pay royalties to the company responsible for their creation. This in turn has long-reaching implications which go far beyond agribusiness.
Though it is still a grey area, the legal battle over modified genes seems all but decided at this point. Whereas natural genes cannot be subject to patents, anything a company modifies in a lab already have been. But given the growth of skunkworks and biohacking labs around the world, there is still time for small operations and independent companies to get in on the action.
As time has shown, diversification is the natural enemy of monopolization. But by far the most important thing of all, whether it’s about patenting genes or modifying them for our use, is for people to remain informed on the issue. As long as people know what decisions are being made behind closed doors, they will have a shot at controlling the outcome.