Human and Other Genes Not Patentable

On Friday, 10/29, the New York Times published “U.S. Says Genes Should Not Be Eligible for Patents:”

Reversing a longstanding policy, the federal government said on Friday that human and other genes should not be eligible for patents because they are part of nature. The new position could have a huge impact on medicine and on the biotechnology industry.

In 1980, the Supreme Court determined that man-made products of genetic engineering are eligible for patent protection. To date, however, a decision in 1948 that disallowed patents for “phenomenon of nature” still stands. The patent laws do not extend to “products of nature” and isolated but unaltered genomic DNA is not patentable.

Agri-business companies like Monsanto have made billions by extracting one or more genes from plants like corn and soybeans and modifying them. The law allows them to apply for patents for products like Roundup Ready soybeans, for example.

More than 2 years ago, Monsanto and BASF announced a partnership on plant technology. Together they and Dupont, Bayer, and Syngenta submitted hundreds of patent applications for dozens of “climate-ready” genes that cover the development of new crops capable of withstanding drought or other environmental changes brought on by global warming. The yield of a crop is determined by the seed’s intrinsic properties, not inserted genes.

The reversal of the patent policy will at least slow down the ability of global seed companies to profit from natural gene sequences, even those isolated from plants and animal cells, without modifying them in some way.

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