The new biotechnology open-source group, called the Biological Innovation for Open Society ("BIOS"), announced that researchers from Australia published a paper in Nature describing a method of creating genetically modified crops that does not infringe on patents held by big biotechnology companies.

Like open-source software, they said the technique, and a related one already used in crop biotechnology, would be made available free to others to use and improve, as long as any improvements are also available free.

The researchers claim to have modified three types of bacteria so they could be used for transferring desirable genes into plants and these were tested on rice, tobacco and Arabidopsis.

BIOS is a spin-off of Cambia, a not-for-profit, Australian-based organization that licenses a variety of technologies under an open source principle. They believe that patents covering tools for genetically engineering plants have impeded the use of biotechnology in developing countries.

Current technologies, patented by Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer CropScience and others, rely on Agrobacterium tumefaciens. Biotechnologist remove some of the disease-causing genes from the bacterium and insert the genes they want added to the plant, such as those providing resistance to insects or herbicides. With the new technique, called TransBacter, researchers at Cambia have modified other types of bacteria by transferring DNA from the Agrobacterium into the other bacteria.

Whether this technique will really be a true design around and circumvent current patent claim coverage is not clear.  It will be interesting to see if taking the necessary genes out of the Agrobacterium bacteria and placing them in non-Agrobacterium bacteria is enough.  Given the CAFC’s continued limitation of the doctrine of equivalents, the patent holders will need to rely on close coverage.

I’m not sure the whole idea of an open-source biotechnology initiative will gain traction given the tremendous cost of biotech research and the fact that patent protection tends to be critical to biotech commercialization – unlike open-source software.

I also would take issue with the statement on the BIOS web site that "Patents were intended to inspire, advance and promote the social benefits deriving from ‘science and the useful arts’. However, the complexity and volume of patents has obscured this focus."   This all sounds well and good until you realize that you can’t afford to develop technologies only to have all your competitors gain a free-ride on your research expenditures. 

As Lincoln said, in a speech in 1859 "The Patent system added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius" – financial rewards act as an incentive to genius like no other.

You can read the Nature paper at:  http://www.bios.net/daisy/bios/393/version/live/part/4/data

More info at the NY Times here.

A BIOS paper describing the Agrobacterium-mediated transformation of plants is here:  http://www.bios.net/daisy/bios/50/78

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