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Molecular Biology and the Court

While the US Supreme Court ruling last week in the Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics gene patenting case was a unanimous decision, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a short concurring opinion. In it, Scalia notes while he joins in the judgment of the court, there were aspects of the opinion, particularly surrounding its description molecular biology, that he did not join with the other justices on. "I am unable to affirm those details on my own knowledge or even my own belief," he says.

At Science 2.0, Robert Cooper writes that he finds Scalia's lack of understanding of, or belief in, molecular biology to be worrisome. "Justice Scalia's rejection of basic science did not affect the outcome of this case, but in a world where science and technology are playing an ever-increasing role in society … this dissent with the past half-century of universally accepted (in the scientific community, anyway) biology by one of the most powerful men in America is profoundly disturbing," Cooper adds.

However, Steven Salzberg in his column at Forbes notes that the Court's description of molecular biology contains a number of errors. For example, Salzberg points out that while the Court said that "the nucleotides that code for amino acids are 'exons,' and those that do not are 'introns'" that is not quite the case.

"[W]hen making DNA into a protein, the cell copies DNA into RNA. Big chunks of the RNA are spliced out and discarded. Those are 'introns.' What remains [are] 'exons,'" he writes, adding that "nucleotides that code for amino acids are contained within the exons, but they are not the same thing. It's not unusual for 25 [percent] or even 50 [percent] of the nucleotides in the exons to be ignored when making amino acids."

And these errors, Salzberg says, are disconcerting as the decision may affect genetic testing, the biotech industry, and healthcare.