shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source
Time to Open Source the Human Genome
9/8/1999
 
The news this week that a researcher has bred a genetically smarter mouse is another 
precursor to a new era of genetic manipulation. The experiment, performed by Dr. Joe 
Tsien of Princeton, stimulated a gene called NR2B, producing mice with greatly 
heightened intelligence and memory. The story has generated a great deal of interest, 
especially as human brains may have a similar genetic mechanism, but there is a behind-
the-scenes story which better illuminates the likely shape of 21st century medicine. 
Almost from the moment that the experiment was publicized, a dispute broke out about 
ownership of NR2B itself, which is already patented by another lab. Like an information 
age land-grab, whole sections of genetic information are being locked behind 
pharmaceutical patents as fast as they are being identified. If the current system of 
private ownership of genes continues, the majority of human genes could be owned in 
less than two years. The only thing that could save us from this fate would be an open-
source movement in genetics -- a movement to open the DNA source code for the human 
genome as a vast public trust.  
 
Fighting over mouse brains may seem picayune, but the larger issue is ownership of the 
genetic recipe for life. The case of the smarter mouse, patent pending, is not an 
isolated one: among the patents granted for human genes are blindness (Axys 
Pharmaceuticals), epilepsy (Progenitor), and Alzheimer's (Glaxo Wellcome). Rights to 
the gene which controls arthritis will be worth millions, breast cancer, billions, and 
the company that patents the genes that control weight loss can write their own ticket. 
As the genome code becomes an essential part of industries from bio-computing and 
cybernetic interfaces to cosmetics and nutrition, the social and economic changes it 
instigates are going to make the effects of the Internet seem inconsequential. 
Unfortunately for us, though, the Internet's intellectual property is mostly in the 
public domain, while the genome is largely -- and increasingly -- private.

It didn't have to be this way. Patents exist to encourage investment by guaranteeing a 
discoverer time to recoup their investment before facing any competition, but patent 
law has become increasingly permissive in what constitutes a patentable discovery. There 
are obviously patents to be had in methods of sequencing genes and for methods of using 
those sequences to cure disease or enhance capability. But to allow a gene itself to be 
patented makes a mockery of "prior art," the term which covers unpatented but widely 
dispersed discoveries. It is prior art which keeps anyone from patenting fire, or the 
wheel, and in the case of genetic information, life itself is the prior art. It is a 
travesty of patent law that someone can have the gene for Alzheimer's in every cell of 
their body, but that the patent for that gene is owned by Glaxo Wellcome.

The real action, of course, is not in mouse brains but in the human genome. Two teams, 
one public and one private, are working feverishly to sequence all of the 100,000 or so 
genes which lie within the 23 pairs of human chromosomes. The public consortium aims to 
release the sequence into the public domain, while the private group aims to patent much 
of the genome, especially the valuable list of mutations that cause genetic disease. The 
competition between these two groups has vastly accelerated the pace of the work -- 
moving it from scheduled completion in 2005 to next year -- but the irony is that this 
accelerated timetable won't give the public time to grasp the enormous changes the 
project portends. By this time next year, the fate of the source code for life on earth 
-- open or closed -- will be largely finished, long before most people have even begun 
to understand what is at stake. 


Write clay@shirky.com with questions or comments.

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shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source