Join News Letter

Iraq War

Peak Oil

Climate Change

US Imperialism











Gujarat Pogrom



India Elections



Submit Articles

Contact Us

Fill out your
e-mail address
to receive our newsletter!




Open-Source Biology Evolves

By David Cohn

19 January, 2005
Wired News

To push research forward, scientists need to draw from the best data and innovations in their field. Much of the work, however, is patented, leaving many academic and nonprofit researchers hamstrung. But an Australian organization advocating an open-source approach to biology hopes to free up biological data without violating intellectual property rights.

The battle lies between biotech companies like multinational Monsanto, who can grant or deny the legal use of biological information, and independent organizations like The Biological Innovation for Open Society, or BIOS, and Science Commons. The indies want to give scientists free access to the latest methods in biotechnology through the web.

Today's the Day. BIOS will soon launch an open-source platform that promises to free up rights to patented DNA sequences and the methods needed to manipulate biological material. Users must only follow BIOS' "rules of engagement," which are similar to those used by the open-source software community.

"There are technologies you need to innovate and then there are the innovations themselves," said Richard Jefferson1, founder and director of BIOS in Canberra, Australia. "But those can only happen when there is fair access to the technologies."

Just like open-source software, open-source biology users own the patents to their creations, but cannot hinder others from using the original shared information to develop similar products. Any improvements of the shared methods of BIOS, the Science Commons or other open-source communities must be made public, as well as any health hazards that are discovered.

BIOS has called on Brian Behlendorf2, CTO of ColabNet, to create the web tools the open-source community platform will run on. Those should be up in the coming weeks.

Nipping at its heels is the Science Commons. The outgrowth project of Creative Commons will have a hand in all areas of science, not just the life sciences like BIOS, and is getting ready to launch its open-source community in the next two to three weeks, said John Wilbanks, executive director of Science Commons.

Wilbanks sees Science Commons and other open-source communities as a "neutral ground" for people to decide how much control over a patent they want to maintain or control. "Say you are a holder of patents and you want to make them available, you should be able to do that without having to call a lawyer," said Wilbanks.

While free access to biological information will benefit those doing research, companies who have invested millions in patents, on the other hand, won't perform expensive groundbreaking research without a guarantee that their intellectual property rights would be upheld. "Patents attract investors, providing the resources necessary to bring the product to market," said Brigid Quinn, deputy director of public affairs with the U.S. patent office. "Patents are and have always been an important part of this country's economic fabric."

On the contrary, Jefferson believes patent restrictions have compromised billions of people who should be benefiting from new diagnostic tests or improved genetically modified crops and medicines.

For example, biologists in Kenya might be eager to create a genetically modified sweet potato that could allow farmers to use fewer chemical fertilizers. But if a company owns all or part of the gene sequence, DNA fragment or the mechanism in question, the scientists' hands are tied unless they can pay a licensing fee. The corporations that own such patents won't invest in research unless they know a market is waiting for the product.

"Perhaps professors in Kenya can start a company, perhaps they can make $300,000 a year, but that's just not on the charts for Monsanto," said Roger Brent of Berkeley's Molecular Sciences Institute.











Search Our Archive

Our Site