Genetic enginering for fun and profit

I was very young when I first read Copernick’s Rebellion by Leo Frankowski. It captured my imagination, and is directly responsible for my thoughts on genetic engineering and my desire to become a genetic engineer. The author was ahead of his time, taking the (then fictional) idea of manipulating genomes to fantastic conclusions. The characters turn our dismal world into something beautiful, a utopia that provides food and shelter for everyone.
Of course, some of the organisms in the book are more likely than others, but the idea holds true. So many things could be accomplished with biotechnology, from feeding the world to cleaning up pollution… but regulatory, financial, and social issues are preventing the most interesting and promising work from being done.
The main character in the book took some extreme measures to get his creations to the people who needed them most, but I think we have some better options. One of those is make genetic engineering accessible to more people.
Software has improved by leaps and bounds because so many people have contributed. Big companies like Microsoft and Google don’t have the desire to make every function that people might want to use. However, people who have time and knowledge can create helpful applications and share them, Open Source, for the good of the community. The code can be tweaked by others, shared, and tweaked further, until some highly useful items come about.
How could this idea apply to genetic engineering?
Over 180 genomes have been sequenced to date, according to Craig Venter’s Genome News Network, and we can expect to see more and more. Within these genomes are the genes we need to solve problems, if only there were enough people working on them. There are relatively few hands working on genetic engineering right now, so most of the treasure remains hidden. If more people had access to the genomes, along with basic knowledge of how genes work, they could apply their time and creativity to designing new solutions. A whole new industry could develop, providing the tools people would need to bring their ideas into reality.
I personally would like some cold-tolerant basil and late-flowering cilantro for my herb garden. Various genes for cold-tolerance and flowering are known, but certainly haven’t been applied in this way. One roadblock to long-lasting cilantro in my garden is patenting of genes. I can’t just use a previously described gene without dealing with intellectual property law.
As of 6 December 2007, Nature has opened all papers reporting genome sequences to the public, under a Creative Commons license. This is a step in the right direction, but doesn’t affect the patenting of individual genes. Patents are necessary to drive innovation – they allow the patent holder to recoup the cost of development or discovery.
A modified patent would allow only the patent holder to use the gene for profit, but freely allow non-profit use of the gene. I could design and create my cilantro, as long as I don’t sell it, and give credit to the person who developed the gene. If I do develop something with market potential, I could negotiate with the patent holder, perhaps to pay royalties for the duration of the patent.
Of course, we can’t ignore the negative aspects of the accessibility of technology. There will always be those who use technology to harm others. Harmful organisms certainly pose a special problem because they can replicate. Strict regulation of harmful organisms and genes would certainly be necessary, and not impossible.
This post was inspired by “The Open Organism: Genetic Engineering in the Open Source Era“.