Will Synthetic Biology Patents Endanger the Biofuel Industry?

There’s two ways to build an organism these days: from the top down or from the bottom up. Classic genetic engineering focuses on changing one or two genes out of the whole genome. The emerging field of synthetic biology takes the opposite tack in that it tries to take the simplest organisms and add functionality to them.

As you might imagine, it’s not easy to build organisms from scratch. But some investors are betting it is the best way to achieve the kind of breakthrough discovery that could turn the oil industry on its head. A lot of venture money has gone into companies like LS9, Gevo, Mascoma, Amyris and ProtoLife, all of whom are trying to turn simple bacteria like E. coli into chemical factories. It’s not so far-fetched, when you think about it. Many organisms, like any plant that we get pharmaceuticals from, already synthesize chemicals that are far more complicated than hydrocarbons like ethanol or butanol.

That’s why this weekend’s media alert from the Canadian technology watchdog group, ETC, is troublesome. It describes recent patent applications by the consistently controversial and brilliant scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute surrounding the creation of synthetic genomes. These patents go beyond what The Economist reported on last May. The watchdogs’ Jim Thomas breathlessly describes the implications of granting such patents (US20070269862A1 and US20070264688):

“It appears that Craig Venter’s lawyers have constructed a legal rats’ nest of monopoly claims that may entangle the entire field of synthetic biology… For example, the list includes proprietary claims on basic research steps such as adding synthetic DNA to a living organism – which pretty much sums up the current field of synthetic biology.”

While you might normally write-off ETC (who I think of as the Greenpeace of Futurism) as just making trouble for an industry they clearly don’t like, you can’t write off the comments of Dr. Tom Knight, a luminary in the field. He said, “This is extremely serious. If the claims were to be granted, it’s like saying ‘we own life.’”

I should be able to speak with the folks at the JCV Institute tomorrow. They could have overreached, but they’re not patent trolls. My guess is that these applications don’t end up tripping a field with such great potential, but it’s worth keeping this risk in mind as the millions keep pouring into a sector that looks like a good bet to produce a breakthrough next-gen biofuel.