Genetic intellectual property

One of the great sticking points in international trade negotiations has been over intellectual property rights. The rich “northern” countries complain that their expensive movies, music, and software are insufficiently protected in poorer “southern” countries like Brazil and India. What’s less well known is that these same southern countries have intellectual property concerns of their own, only the intellectual property in question is genetic. Under the name of bioprospecting, biologists collect tropical botanical specimens in the hopes that there might be some therapeutic benefit to the chemicals contained therein. Governments in tropical countries thus worry that plant material leaving the country may be developed into blockbuster drugs at no compensation to them… software piracy goes in one direction, biopiracy goes in the other. Unfortunately this anxiety causes all visiting biologists to be treated with great suspicion. Craig Venter, on a genome-collecting sail around the world, was placed under temporary arrest in French Polynesia for the unauthorized theft of genetic material.

This problem of genomic intellectual property is going to get much worse. For example, Monsanto will sue you if they find some of their patented genes in your potatoes. The problem is that Mother Nature likes to move genes around. Maybe you don’t want trouble with Monsanto’s legal department, but your promiscuous plants might bring it in the form of an illicit cross-fence liaison with your neighbor’s potatoes. We may end up with a Mann Act for tubers.

In Rob Calson’s biotech blog, I came across this throw-away line in an article about biofuel synthesis:

I wonder how thoroughly they are scrubbing the waste stream?  Dumpster diving for competitive intelligence takes on a new meaning here.

I hadn’t considered this before. You may spend ten years perfecting a biomass-composting superbug, only to have your competitor slurp it out of your sewage.

It’s become a standard line among software CEOs to say your chief assets walk out the door every night. In the biotech business you literally pour those assets down the drain. It’s a strange business when the smartest guy in the building sleeps in a picoliter pup tent. And it’s hard to enforce that employee non-compete agreement when he or any of his five billion children feel like walking the day after tomorrow.