From a long in-depth interview at The Edge, with Drew Endy, who is Assistant Professor of Biological Engineering at MIT, and which reviews 30 years of progress in ‘engineering biology’.
The start of the conversation has the following significant quote:
“the biosecurity framework needs to recognize that it’s not going to be nation-state driven work necessarily, how an ownership sharing and innovation framework needs to be developed that moves beyond patent-based intellectual property and recognizes that the information defining the genetic material’s going to be more important than the stuff itself and so you might transition away from patents to copyright and so on and so forth.”
Drew Endy continues:
“The Open Source world is one thing; if you’re trying to invent a language for programming DNA, having a proprietary language seems stupid. If Oxford University had supported privatization of the English language hundreds of years ago, the dictionary they made wouldn’t have been so useful. And so to a first approximation, there’s going to be a core collection of standardized genetic objects that can define families of languages people can use to program DNA. And those have to be made a public resource.
This will be a big transition from today. Biotechnology today derives investments from business models that support the exclusive application of different biological functions for a very small number of problems. For example, there are wonderful companies that have locked up most of the relevant intellectual property around how to engineer proteins to bind DNA. The products that they can deliver are going to be measured in small positive integer numbers, a few diseases.
But, the real value associated with being able to engineer proteins that bind DNA are in the uncountable applications people could use the proteins for. It’s like a programming language where it would be a big downstream economic cost if you owned “if/then” and you were the only person who could use it. We need to be able to reuse this stuff in combination. Note that the ownership of biotechnology will play out in a landscape that is surfing along a technology transition where, as automatic construction of DNA gets better and better and better, you’re going to care less about the specific material you have, you’re going to care more about the information on a computer data base and the computer design tool that lets you organize that information, compile it down to a DNA sequence, and print it. As soon as you start to manage information, all sorts of new ownership, sharing and innovation schemes become allowable.”
For more information, see our entries on:
– the work being done on open licenses for science
– An Open View audio conversation with David Lipman on Open Science and Biology
We cover open/free, participatory, and commons oriented developments in Science here.