Monday, August 20, 2012

Gene Patenting: The Commodification of Nature

The ensuing biotechnology gold rush saw thousands of patents being granted over human genes, viruses, proteins, and the processes of their biological manufacture, and it had become evident that perhaps things had gone too far.
- Luigi Palombi
Remember reading about the Human Genome Project (HGP) back in Science class in middle school? If you were like me, then you probably barely retained any of the information while skimming the chapter (just enough to bullshit your way through a pop quiz and just enough to pass a test). If you were like me, then you probably overlooked the section in the chapter that mentioned the HGP was an ongoing project that had been initiated since about the time of your birth. And if you were like me, then you probably did not even recognize the relationship between genomics and genetics until years later in your Biology class in high school. Unbeknownst to me (and you apparently), there existed this complex world of genetics...and that world was trying to patent me (us).

OK, so maybe that was an exaggeration.

No one is literally attempting to patent humans ("they're" working on it), but genetic researches are patenting human genes along with plant and animal genes. Confused? Let us go back to Science class in middle school where you—we—should have been paying attention instead of goofing off with our friends. In 1865, an Austrian priest by the name of Gregor Johann Mendel discovered that certain traits are passed from one generation to another while conducting hybridization experiments on garden peas (World Health Organization, 2005). Today, we know the passing of these traits as hereditary or genetic inheritances also known as Mendelian inheritance or Mendelian genetics. Delving even deeper, molecular biologist, James Dewey Watson, along with his partner Frances Crick discovered deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), or rather, the double-helix structure of DNA in 1953. DNA is the equivalent to a set of instructions in each cell in an organism that causes them to grow and develop as they do (Koepsell, 2009). For instance, humans have their own set of DNA as do monkeys, birds, and fish. That is why fish look and humans look like...humans.

Are you keeping up so far? You do remember reading about cells and their organelles, right? Moving along...

DNA is what enables us to pass off traits to our offspring through genes. Genes are molecular units of heredity; they exist within DNA. Genes are the reason you have your mom’s hair texture, your dad’s eye color, and perhaps your grandfather’s nose. Genes may also be the reason why you have a higher chance of developing breast cancer or heart disease (remember this!). Our DNA contains about 25,000 to 35,000 genes. These genes make up the human genome (aha!). Between the late 1980s and early 1990s, an enormous, 15-year, $3 billion, multinational project was launched to map the entire human genome, known as the Human Genome Project (HGP) (Crucible II Group, 2000; World Health Organization, 2005; Li, 2007; Koepsell, 2009). Although the HGP has made considerable contributions to the public, such as the detection of hereditary disorders, it has also left in its wake the commercialization of genes through patents, which makes me wonder if that was the ultimate goal in the first place.

Patents are rights to royalties for useful inventions (Koepsell, 2009). That means no one else can replicate/duplicate, or modify (with intentions to sell) a patented product without compensating the inventor first. Otherwise, it is grounds for a lawsuit. For instance, let us pretend that I was the inventor of OxyClean and I was granted a patent by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). No one else could create a product similar to it unless they paid me a fee (royalty). As the patent holder of OxyClean, I have the option of refusing to allow anyone else to create a product like it for the market. Patent rights last up to 20 years after which the product is released into the public domain (Weir & Olick, 2004; Koepsell, 2009). So, I would own the rights to OxyClean for 20 years after which other inventors/innovators may modify it to make it better and even patent that newer version (remember this!). They would not be able to patent my original version because under patent laws, or intellectual property laws, you cannot patent anything that already exists (remember this too!). Of course, this is merely glancing through the doorway of the world of patents and how they work, but I only need you to understand the basics—not to mention this is as much as I understand myself!

What is important to know about patents is that they are meant to spur innovation in order to create “new and useful” products for the public (Weir & Olick, 2004; World Health Organization, 2005). Initially, the new and uselful products were supposed to be along the lines of machines and processes (certain ways of doing things)...they were not supposed to be anything that actually existed in nature. Then on May 28, 1974, a patent was granted for a bacterium that degraded oil in the case Diamond vs. Chakrabarty (Palombi, 2009). This was the first microorganism (!) to receive a patent. Even though the bacterium already existed in nature, what made it an invention was the amount of human intervention (Palombi, 2009). Had researches not altered the natural state of the bacterium, it would not have had the capability of degrading oil. Suddenly, it was “new and useful.” Diamond vs. Chakrabarty is often regarded as the birth of the biotechnological/biotechnology (BioTech) age. Twenty years later, Scotland’s Roslin Institute would introduce the world to Dolly in February of 1997 (Crucible II Group, 2000). Who could forget Dolly? She was the first cloned mammal (!!) in history (at least to the public's knowledge). I used to get so tired of hearing the name “Dolly” and the word “cloning” on television as a child. Dolly was a cloned lamb from the single cell of a sheep—and yes, she was patented as well as the process by which she was cloned (Crucible II Group, 2000).

DNA. Genes. Genetics. Genome. Patents. BioTech. Cloning. Got it, right? Right! Now for the real issues.

The more BioTech companies seem to be encroaching upon the patenting of humans, the more uneasy the world community becomes. The most popular BioTech patents are for genes. “Since 1976, the United States’ Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) has issued over 16,000 patents on isolated and purified deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) sequences or on processes used to identify, isolate, copy, sequence, or analyze DNA sequences” (Resnik, 2004, p. 1). Remember how I said that patents were not supposed to be granted for products that already existed in nature or for anything that already exists in general? Well, like the modifications made to the bacterium in Diamond vs. Chakrabarty, the genes that are being patented are also altered. Patented genes have undergone a process called isolation and purification which alters their natural state thereby making them significantly different from the genes found in, say, normal human DNA (Resnik, 2004; Weir & Olick, 2004; World Health Organization, 2005; Li, 2007; Koepsell, 2009; Palombi, 2009; Koopman, 2010).

Dolly, the cloned sheep
It is not only human genes that are being patented though. Animal and plant genes are being patented, too. These “new” isolated genes are used in detecting hereditary disorders before birth or the prevention of family illnesses (Rouvroy, 2008), replenishing our finite food supply (yeah, most of us have already been consuming genetically modified fruits, vegetables, and meat for decades now...can you say “cancer”?), creating new medicines from plants that are not indigenous to our land, and perhaps even repopulating the earth with extinct (or near extinct) species of animals through the cloning of stored DNA samples. This is no game folks. Biotechnology has quickly become a multibillion dollar industry (Lee & Koenig, 2003). We are talking about multinational corporations, huge genetic firms, research universities, pharmaceutical companies, national governments...and elitists (Rockefeller-type elitists) with huge stakes in the industry.

Wherever a substantial amount of money is to be made, exploitation is bound to occur. The BioTech industry is no different. Globalization has allowed for the scouring of profitable gene pools not only within the borders of one country or population, but from countries and populations all over the globe (Koopman, 2010). Genes are now being taken from indigenous or geographically isolated populations and patented but without compensating or giving recognition of the source (remember my post about Henrietta Lacks?). “Geographically isolated populations...pose a ripe potential pool for discovery of other genetic diseases or traits that might be useful in developing pharmaceuticals or tests for diseases” (Koepsell, 2009, p. 12). In 1994, the National Institute of Health (NIH) submitted patent applications for genes taken from the Hagahai people in Papua, New Guinea and natives from the Solomon Islands (Resnik, 2004). Questions that arise are: Who gave the researches the consent to extract cells from the individuals in said populations? Were the individuals aware of what was taking place? Were the individuals well compensated for their time and contribution? If granted the patent, was NIH going to return a portion of the royalties to said populations throughout the life of the patent?

Likewise, the medications we take are often derived from plants beyond our own borders. “More than two-thirds of the world’s plant species—at least 35,000 of which have potential medicinal value—originate in developing countries” (Crucible Group, 1994). The BioTech industry is always on “bioprospecting” alert. Bioprospecting is the practice of searching for profitable materials in nature and then patenting them as if to say “mine!” (Koepsell, 2009). Local communities and indigenous populations who have the most knowledge on these plants are often overlooked (Crucible Group, 1994). Their health may also be threatened. If, for instance, a pharmaceutical company goes into a developing country and discovers a plant or herb that aids in the treatment of diabetes, they may end up destroying that plant species for good. This leaves local doctors with extensive knowledge on the application of the plant without a means of treating illnesses in her/his village/community (Koopman, 2010).

It would seem that globalization would lead to the dissemination of information and technology, but this has not been the case. If anything, globalization has helped to widen the gap. Although we are very much dependent upon developing countries for a wide variety of foods (that tomato in your salad was not grown in the U.S.) and plants with medicinal value, the countries themselves lack the proper infrastructure to make a profit from their own natural materials. Instead, they are being ousted by countries with much more advanced economies. BioTech companies from the U.S., Europe, and a few countries in Asia are going into these less developed countries depleting and/or claiming the rights over all their natural resources. “The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report finds that the during the past decades of globalization ‘...humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history, largely to meet rapidly growing demands... This has resulted in...irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth’” (Koopman, 2010, p. 72).

At some point we will have to think about the future consequences of the manipulation of genetics on our bodies and the environment. We need to consider how many more illnesses we have to develop before we refuse to consume any more genetically modified foods. We need to consider how long it will be before researchers in the BioTech fields are cross-breeding animal species from cloned embryos (if it has not been happening under our noses already)—and the “new” species are patented. We need to consider how long it will be before a cloned embryo is implanted into a woman’s uterus—and that child is patented. We need to consider how long it will be before a cloned embryo is developed into a child outside of the uterus—and that process is patented. Will natural pregnancies then be considered as patent infringements? Better yet, will your government have big enough balls to step in and say, “No, this is going too far” or will they be the culprits?

Eh! Sounds like a cheap and cheesy SciFi movie that I would eagerly watch.


Crucible Group. (1994). People, plants, and patents: The impact of intellectual property on biodiversity, conservation, trade, and rural society. Ottawa, ON: International Development Research Centre.

Crucible II Group. (2000). Changes in molecular bioscience: What impact on society and biodiversity? In Seeding solutions: Policy options for genetic resources: People, plants, and patents revisited (Vol. 1), pp. 27-39).

Koepsell, D. (2009). Who owns you: The corporate gold rush to patent your genes. West Sussex, England: Wiley-Blackwell.

Koopman, J. (2010). Protection of cultural and biological diversity by patent law: Issues to be resolved. In A. Flanagan & M. L. Montagnani (Eds.), Intellectual property law: Economic and social justice perspectives (pp. 66-92). Cheltenham, Glos: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited. Lee, S. S., &

Keonig, B. A. (2003). Racial profiling of DNA samples: Will it affect scientific knowledge about human genetic variation? In B. M. Knoppers (Ed.), Populations and genetics: Legal and socio-ethical perspectives (pp. 231-244). Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Academic Publishers.

Li, Y. (2007). Human gene patenting and its implications for medical research. In P. K. Yu (Ed.), Intellectual property and information wealth: Issues and practices in the digital age (Vol. 2, pp. 347-376). Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Palombi, L. (2009). Gene cartels: Biotech patents in the age of free trade. Cheltenham, Glos:

Edward Elgar Publishing. Resnik, D. B. (2004). Owning the genome: A moral analysis of DNA patenting. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Rouvroy, A. (2008). Human genes and neoliberal governance: A foucauldian critique. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge-Cavendish.

Weir, R. F., & Olick, R. S. (2004). The stored tissue issue: Biomedical research, ethics, and law in the era of genomic medicine. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

World Health Organization. (2005). Genetics, genomics, and the patenting of DNA: A review of potential implications for health in developing countries. Retrieved from


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