a mash-up of humanity & nature
I’m not a lawyer, but technically I am a geneticist.
It seems so long ago, but one of the big reasons I had for pursuing the study of science, learning about molecular biology, and completing an undergraduate degree in genetics was that I was seriously interested in a career in genetic counseling. In the mid-nineteen-nineties, popular culture was rife with scientists dabbling in genetic science on humans and animals. Jurassic Park was not just a movie, to many of my fellow students it was a documentary on the future.
We all know how that panned out… and I have a good idea of how my parallel career fending off the moral uncertainty of folks fiddling with their heritable features turned out too. It aligned about as neatly.
In a way, genetics always seemed a little like hacking to me: one peers into the cryptic code of a functioning system, then (without causing that code to utterly collapse and fail — which means the organism would be dead) one needs to divine its function.
As it turned out, dabbling is much more difficult than it looks (and it looks tough) and we can barely clone extant critters, let alone ones that have been dead for a couple hundred million years. The nearest concern of modern molecular biology, at least in the popular literature I still read, had less to do with the moral implications of all this research and instead had much more to do with the legal fallout.
I say “had” of course, as the US Supreme Court put an end to the practice of patenting naturally occurring human genes in 2013, but like some kind of weird biological land rush, the patenting of synthetic sequences is still fair game, and as far as I follow, everything else, too.
And I get it: I get the desire for biotechnology companies to see a return on their investments. Biotechnology is expensive. It’s cheaper now than when I was doing it, but still damn expensive. If any company throws any money at any research, they kind expect to see some guarantee from society that there will be an ability to (at least for a while) maintain exclusive use of those results. So, we let companies patent stuff: designs, concepts, structures, inventions. We let creative professionals use copyrights and trademarks, which are different… but sort of the same. Neither of these seem quite right for biotechnology, though, but we borrow from the concept and throw it at something not quite created, not quite invented but yet more than just simply discovered.
Either way, it would have been interesting to consider this question 20 years ago…. I could have beat the genetics patent rush and ensuing legal battles. And it probably would have made an awesome thesis topic, too.