Continued confusion about the terminator

While pollinating, I’ve been listening to the Center for Inquiry’s Point of Inquiry podcast. If you are interested in non-mainstream-media topics in subjects as diverse as Naturalistic philosophy, secular child rearing, the planetary status of Pluto, and blasphemy at the United Nations, this podcast is for you. Added bonus: the host, D.J. Grothe has a nice voice and directed interviewing technique that is lacking in many podcasts.
All of the episodes are interesting, but I just had to write a quick post about the 8 May 2009 episode Who Owns You with David Koepsell. Dr. Koepsell has a lot of interesting things to say about intellectual property in his new book Who Owns You? The Corporate Gold Rush to Patent Your Genes. They cover a variety of topics in the interview that relate to human genes and IP, including the ACLU v Myriad case. I’m really looking forward to reading the book.
The topic of plant gene patenting and the terminator gene comes up (apologies if my transcription is less than perfect):

D.J.: How is all this related to biotech firms owning genetic sequences of plants or making it illegal for, you know, farmers in the third world, or whatever, you hear these horror stories about Monsanto, …big agribusiness making it illegal for farmers to grow corn on their land or something. Is what Monsanto is doing in agriculture what other companies are doing in genetics and it’s all about money…
Dr. Kopsell: Let me address the Monsanto and their terminator corn, as it’s called. Kind of a horrific name, terminator corn, but really it’s an interesting technology. That is an engineered corn that can’t be used to reseed your farms. And the point of making it, for Monsanto, was to increase their profits, ‘cause farmers often keep, you know, some amount of the corn they’ve grown to replant so they don’t have to buy as many seeds next year.
D.J.: So Monsanto did it so you had to keep going back to them to buy new seeds.
Dr. Kopsell: Yeah, now, of course you have a choice, you don’t have to buy Monsanto’s seeds. …it’s not like they’re hiding the fact that they’ve created this corn to do this. The patent in fact, lays bare their invention. But, I think it’s a nasty thing to do. If I were a farmer I wouldn’t buy those seeds unless they had some great advantage for me.

Then, they get back into the subject of the validity of patenting wildtype or native genes as opposed to patenting engineered genes which is another subject worthy of its own post.
D.J. brings up the subject, and his understanding is weak to say the least (but that’s ok, he doesn’t claim to be an expert). Unfortunately, Dr. Kopsell does claim to be an expert (he is there to discuss his book on genes and IP, after all), so he should know better than to speak about something he seems to know little about. I’m not just picking on Dr. Koepsell (although perhaps he should focus on human gene IP). Lots of people make the assumption that terminator genes are in use, and lots of people don’t quite understand what it is. It’s just another of many urban legends and myths that have been spread about biotechnology.
Dr. Kopsell claims that this technology is currently in use, but to my knowledge this is false. In fact, there is a global ban on its use. Monsanto has a nice little statement on the subject, but if you don’t want to take their word for it, see the Convention on Biological Diversity. The CBD is an agreement signed on to by over 100 countries to protect biodiversity, including the Cartagena Protocol that specifically aims to save the world from the ill effects of biotechnology. I’ll warn you, though, a lot of their assumptions are based more on Greenpeace inspired disaster scenarios than on science. The problem of runaway precautionary principle instead of level headed risk assessment rises again.
I’ve written in the past about GURTs (genetic use restriction technology – the proper name for terminator genes) in Gene flow, IP, and the terminator. This post includes some alterative strategies of gene containment, and a brief discussion of why farmers can’t save seeds if they are using hybrids. If any questions you might have about terminator genes aren’t answered there, feel free to ask questions in a comment.

Anastasia Bodnar

Written by Anastasia Bodnar

Anastasia Bodnar serves as the Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. She is a science communicator and multidisciplinary risk analyst with a career in federal service. She has a PhD in plant genetics and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University.

4 comments

  1. I haven’t listened to the podcast, but do they make a clear distinction between the kinds of patents that are claimed on endogenous genes, versus the kinds of patents put on transgenes? That’s one of the problems I have found when it comes to discussing patents in biology, is people seem to think that the kinds of patents involved in the Myriad case mean that they own women who have the patented alleles. It’s an important issue, and it should not be made more difficult by misunderstandings such as that.
    I know what you mean about popular mythology about genetic engineering in agriculture – there are a lot of educated people out there that have misconceptions about what does or does not exist. Sure there are the people who think that the "Grapple" is a GMO, but it becomes more problematic when science communicators (and commentators) don’t know much about it. On a recent episode of the This Week in Science podcast, they talked about how the Flavr Savr tomatoes they find in the store are yucky… of course there are no Flavr Savr tomatoes in any stores. The idea that the "terminator" GURT is in Monsanto’s seeds is widespread, and Vandana Shiva also makes claims that Monsanto seed kills itself and cannot be regrown.

  2. It’s too easy to accidentally take something we’ve heard as a rumor (sometimes without even remembering where we heard it!) and unconsciously consider it a fact – I hope that posts like this will help people to take a moment to corroborate sources before proceeding.

    Re: native vs engineered genes, it is covered a little in the podcast, but the whole episode is less than an hour. I’m hoping the issues is covered in more depth in the book.

  3. Thanks for the deserved correction, and yes, I do distinguish between transgenic technology (which is patentable) and patents on "found" genes, which ought not to be allowed. You can see my blog for more discussion as well as a link to my book.

    best,
    David

  4. Now, also, to be fair… I never explicitly say that the technology is in use, but rather that it has been developed, and if I were a farmer, I wouldn’t want to use it. But that’s a lawyerly response, and I admit to being sloppy in my reference to the technology.

    best,
    David

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