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Synthetic Biology's Culture

Taking an open source approach to synthetic biology may offer a new and exciting ways to fuel innovation in a rapidly advancing field, but what might happen if the controls over intellectual property in this area are weakened or lost, Nature report Brynn Renner asks.

In a feature article, Renner says projects like the Pink Army Cooperative, which aims to crowd source innovation from DIYers that would rival what pharma giants can do, offer one vision of the future of synthetic biology.

On the other hand, synthetic biology could become more like the pharmaceutical industry, one in which massive international firms pursue new drugs and devices with the understanding that they will make their money back, and then some, through well protected patents and licenses on their innovations.

"How synthetic biologists resolve the conflict between open source and patent protection could determine whether the field delivers on its ambitious goal of transforming medicine, agriculture, energy, environmental remediation and other industries through precision engineering," Renner writes.

Synthetic biology has developed over the last few decades through amalgamations of different influences, including the software design and biotechnology sectors, "each with different cultures of intellectual property," he notes.

The US Supreme Court's AMP and Myriad Genetics decision last year, which ruled that "products of nature" are not eligible for patents, may not have much to say on the synthetic biology field, which by its nature creates DNA that does not occur naturally.

Many synthetic biologists are patenting the fruits of their labors, while those who advocate for an open-source culture – many in startups, non-profits, and grad students – say those patents "squelch innovation."

The data on whether patents are better at producing innovation than openness are not definitive, Renner says, but that may not matter.

"For better or worse, we're just committed to a system that depends on the availability of patents, at least to some extent, for greasing the wheels that put the biotech business model in motion," says Hans Sauer, deputy general counsel at BIO.