Patenting life was taken a step further in 1984, when Harvard University successfully applied for a patent on its "oncomouse", a laboratory mouse specifically designed to get cancer easily, so that it would be more useful as a research tool. There are good grounds for objecting to turning a sentient being into a patented laboratory tool, but it is not so easy to see why patent law should not cover newly designed bacteria or algae, which can feel nothing and may be as useful as any other invention.Hmmm, now who else recently said we shouldn't patent sentient life and use it as a laboratory tool? Oh, yeah—that was me at the Humanity+ Summit at Harvard last week.
Indeed, Synthia's very existence challenges the distinction between living and artificial that underlies much of the opposition to "patenting life" – though pointing this out is not to approve the granting of sweeping patents that prevent other scientists from making their own discoveries in this important new field.
As for the likely usefulness of synthetic bacteria, the fact that Synthia's birth had to compete for headlines with news of the world's worst-ever oil spill made the point more effectively than any public-relations effort could have done. One day, we may be able to design bacteria that can quickly, safely, and effectively clean up oil spills. And, according to Venter, if his team's new technology had been available last year, it would have been possible to produce a vaccine to protect ourselves against H1N1 influenza in 24 hours, rather than several weeks.
June 22, 2010
Peter Singer on artificial life: Scientists playing God will save lives
Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer provides his take on the recent synthetic life breakthrough: