Open-Source Practices for Biotechnology

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Fri, 02/11/2005 - 08:25.

Open-Source Practices for Biotechnology - New York Times,
February 10, 2005

Researchers from Australia have devised a method of creating genetically modified crops that does not infringe on patents held by big biotechnology companies.

The people behind the new technology-sharing initiative, called the Biological Innovation for Open Society, or BIOS, say that patents covering the basic
tools for genetically engineering plants - which are controlled by
companies like Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer CropScience - have impeded
the use of biotechnology in developing countries and also in smaller-acreage crops, like vegetables, in the United States.

Open-Source Practices for Biotechnology



By ANDREW POLLACK
- Published: February 10, 2005

The open-source movement, which has encouraged legions of programmers
around the world to improve continually upon software like the Linux
operating system, may be spreading to biotechnology.

Researchers
from Australia will report in a scientific journal today that they have
devised a method of creating genetically modified crops that does not
infringe on patents held by big biotechnology companies.

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. As with
open-source software, the idea is to spur innovation through a sort of
communal barn-raising effort.

In their paper, being published
today in the journal Nature, the researchers said that they had
modified three types of bacteria so they could be used for transferring
desirable genes into plants and that they had inserted genes into three
plants - rice, tobacco and Arabidopsis, a weed often used in lab
experiments.

The new technology-sharing initiative, called the
Biological Innovation for Open Society, or BIOS, is the brainchild of
Richard A. Jefferson, chief executive of Cambia, a nonprofit Australian
research institute. Both Cambia and BIOS are supported by the
Rockefeller Foundation.

The people behind the initiative say
that patents covering the basic tools for genetically engineering
plants - which are controlled by companies like Monsanto, Syngenta
and Bayer CropScience - have impeded the use of biotechnology in
developing countries and also in smaller-acreage crops, like
vegetables, in the United States.

The issue has become a larger
one in recent years as agricultural research has increasingly shifted
from a public-sector activity involving governments and universities to
a private-sector one led by companies.

Gary Toenniessen,
director of food security at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York,
said Dr. Jefferson "has come up with two technologies that basically
engineer around two of the tools that the companies really have control
of and that are a major constraint to applying biotechnology to crop
improvement."

Spokesmen for Monsanto and for Syngenta, a
European company, said they welcomed public innovation and had made
contributions of data and technology to help improve crops in
developing countries.

But Dr. Toenniessen said there was often
red tape involved and the process did not always work. He said, for
instance, that specialists in some Asian countries want to grow
varieties of insect-resistant rice developed at American universities.
But that cannot be done yet, he said, because the universities were
granted rights by the patent holders to use the technology only for
research, not for commercial purposes.

The main technique now
used to splice non-native genes into plants relies on Agrobacterium
tumefaciens, a soil-dwelling microbe that in its natural form causes
crown gall disease by inserting its own genes into plant cells.
Biotechnologists 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. That technique is
covered by various companies' patents.

Dr. Jefferson and other
researchers at Cambia have modified other types of bacteria so they can
also ferry genes into plants. They did this by transferring the
necessary DNA from the Agrobacterium into the other bacteria through a
natural mechanism that microbes use to exchange genes.

Whether
this technique, called TransBacter, would withstand a patent challenge
is still unclear, although Dr. Jefferson, who has compiled a database
of life-science patents, says he is confident that it would.

There are limits to the usefulness of the new technique, because it is
not yet highly efficient, and measures beyond gene transfer are
required in making biotechnology crops. But one of those measures, a
marker system so scientists can tell which plant cells take up the
foreign genes, is also being made available by BIOS.

Dr.
Jefferson said that if scientists worldwide get behind a collective
research effort, the new genetic engineering technique would be quickly
improved and new tools developed, just as programmers everywhere are
constantly sending fixes and upgrades to Linux and other open-source
software programs.

He said that while he wanted to provide competition for Monsanto and other companies just as open-source software did with Microsoft,
he hoped that some companies might use the technology. The more
corporate participation, the more likely is corporate sponsorship of
his foundation.

Dr. Jefferson said that while users of the
gene-splicing technology would be required to put any improvements they
made into the common pool, companies and universities would be allowed
to patent any products they made using the technology, like a
genetically modified crop.

BIOS is one of several efforts aimed
at more open biotechnology development. Software used for biological
analysis has been developed using open-source methods, and certain
databases, including the one containing the human genetic code, are
freely available. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology have been trying to create a catalog of biological
components that others could use to impart novel functions into cells.
But BIOS seems to be the first instance of applying the model to a
laboratory technique.

There are factors that could make it more
difficult for the open-source approach to catch on in biology than in
software. Writing software usually requires just a computer and a desk,
while biological research requires advanced equipment and can be much
more expensive.

Patents also seem more important in spurring
innovation in biotechnology than in software, said Arti Rai, a
professor of law at Duke University. For that reason, Professor Rai
said, it was probably wise of Dr. Jefferson to allow crops developed
using the tools from BIOS to be patented.

"It's a creative way of thinking how to maintain a commons in the biological research space," she said.