Saturday, September 10, 2005

Monsanto denied EST patents

It's a good thing that Monsanto have failed their appeal to get several small EST (expressed sequence tag) sequences patented. ESTs are typically short pieces of DNA that are used to find genes and things like promotors in stetches of DNA that nobody has found the function or sequence of yet. Monsanto wanted to patent (that is intellectually protect) several of these ESTs that bound to sequences in corn. This would have been a bad thing for several reasons, the first is that with the precedent being set for owning a set of DNA that can bind to things of unknown function, you could technically sign in for patents on everything and effectively own entire stretched of unknown DNA. Secondly, it raises considerable issues ethically over who is actually allowed to own stetches of DNA and particularly the ever sticky scenario of biotech companies owning human genes.

The other and final problem is the hinderance to basic research on these genes that would ensue. This is because these ESTs are commonly used in many labs to be able to detect and then enable scientists to actually work with the genes in question. If someone happens to own these ESTs that would mean scientists would have to pay the owner of those patents before they can do any work on those genes. Laboratory work is expensive enough, without extra costs like this to get in the way as it is.

This doesn't mean I'm against patenting genes however, but only where they have been used for a novel function and in a specific application. For example, the Bacillus thurnigenesis toxin genes that have been added to certain breeds of corn by monsanto is certainly right to patent. This is because the application is novel and has a defined function, but it is worth noting that even in this case monsanto do not own the original toxin gene just the way the gene has been used. As the court decided with these ESTs, they did not have a direct specific application* and neither was this application novel.

*Note that monsanto did argue that the ESTs had a use in finding new promotor regions, but the court rejected this as it was not the specific purpose of the EST.