The California brown sea hare has some of the biggest brain cells in the animal kingdom. The bacteria shewanella oneidensis can live with or without oxygen.
What they share, beyond the possession of remarkable traits, is that their DNA is included among thousands of patents owned by BASF, which calls itself “the largest chemical producer in the world.” The German company has acquired nearly half the 13,000 patents derived from 862 marine organisms’ genetic sequences, said a study published in June.
A closer look at what is being patented offers intriguing hints about the future of innovation.
Built on ‘extremophiles’
Alvinella pompejana, a type of deep sea worm, can thrive at temperatures that would kill most living organisms. It has been used in skin creams — and sequences of its genes appear in 18 patents.
Genetic prospectors have a range of motivations. Some are hoping to develop a novel treatment for cancer. Others want to create the next Botox.
Most are looking for organisms with exceptional traits that might offer the missing piece in their new product. That is why patents are filled with “extremophiles,” known for doing well in extreme darkness, cold, acidity and other harsh environments, said Robert Blasiak, a researcher from the Stockholm Resilience Centre.
Your cat is safe, but …
In most countries, it’s not possible to patent “a product of nature.” But what companies and researchers can do is patent a novel application of an organism’s genes.
What that basically means is your cat or a coyote in your backyard cannot be patented. “But if you went out and created a transgenic coyote that no one has done before, then probably yes,” said Dr. Robert Cook-Deegan, a professor at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University.
New form of inequality
The purple sea urchin is known for its regenerative properties, and its genetic sequences appear in patents from BASF, Monsanto and a Japanese pharmaceutical company. But how many useful applications of a given organism can there really be?
Companies in 10 highly-developed countries (Germany, the U.S., Japan Norway, Britain, France, Denmark, Canada, Israel and the Netherlands) own 98 percent of patents involving marine organisms’ DNA, the study found. Some policymakers expressed concern that these patents will be quickly bought up, fueling a new kind of global inequality.
Omega-3 fatty acids are often promoted as good for one’s health. These nutrients are often produced by the marine microorganisms consumed by wild fish, which are often overfished. And so by modifying the genetic code of a Canola plant with DNA from those tiny organisms, BASF has begun experimenting with growing Omega-3 fatty acids.
If technologies like these end up facilitating more sustainable food production, environmentalists and others who oppose genetically modified organisms could face a choice: continue to oppose these products, or consider exceptions when the benefits are clear and large.