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Engineering life

Opening the floodgates for life-patenting, distinguished scientist Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty's patent on the genetically engineered Pseudomonas, has inspired scientists worldwide to experiment with genes and nuclei to create newer species of life, more beneficial than the naturally existing ones.

HISTORIC BEGINNING: Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty set a precedent for patenting of life and life-forms. — Photo: K. Ramesh Babu

IN 1971, General Electric and one of its employees, Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty applied for a US patent on a genetically engineered Pseudomonas bacteria - a bug that has a voracious appetite for oil. The patent office rejected the application on the basis that animate life forms were not patentable.

The case was appealed in the Court of Customs and Patents Appeals Office and then in the Supreme Court. Subsequently, followed a battle. Nine years of strenuous struggle of debates and deliberations to convince the world. While the patent office raised questions of violating moral ethics, Chakrabarty reiterated that all living organisms need not necessarily be naturally occurring, in which case Pseudomonas should be patented as it was an engineered `living' organism.

In 1980, for the first time ever, the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) in the United States issued the patent for Ananda Chakrabarty on Pseudomonas. With that opened up the floodgates for life patenting. A historic beginning indeed, as this set a precedent for patenting of life and life-forms, including seeds, plants, mice, sheep, cows and even parts of human beings.

Chakrabarty became a much sought-after man. From being a bio-policy maker to providing legal advise to Supreme Court judges in different countries about research goals of scientists striving to create newer forms of life, to being an academician and a distinguished professor, he rose to become the advisor to the United Nation.

Presently working as a senior professor of microbiology and genetics at the University of Illinois, distinguished scientist Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty was in the city recently. Excerpts from the interview:

Where did you complete your studies?

Most of my initial years of study were completed in West Bengal. I did my Ph.D in Biochemistry from Calcutta University and then joined the University of Illinois in the United States for my postdoctoral research, where I completed my higher studies. In 1971, I joined the research and development laboratory of GE at Schenectadoi.

How did you develop the Pseudomonas bacteria?

Taking plasmids from three different kinds of bacteria, I transplanted them into the fourth. In simpler words, I just shuffled the genes, changing the characteristics of a bacteria that already existed. The `new' bacteria could guzzle the oil in case of oil-spills in seas or rivers, thus saving valuable marine life and preventing environmental degradation.

Why did it take nine years for you to obtain the patent?

The PTO rejected my claim initially saying that patent to a life-form cannot be given on ethical grounds as it violates morality. Questions such as, `Who owns the Pseudomonas?' were asked to me.

I was repeatedly told that if the PTO were to give a patent to the Pseudomonas, then every other person on earth would start applying to patent trees, animals and even higher forms of life. I debated on the basis of the fact that the patent laws never explicitly said that naturally occurring substances could not be patented.

The PTO assumed that because the Pseudomonas was living, it was natural.

But deliberately or fortuitously, the PTO remained oblivious of the fact that I had actually changed the genetic structure of the bacteria, for which it acquired the special oil-guzzling capability.

Prior to the genetic engineering, the bacterium was a normal one.

It was a difficult exercise, convincing the whole world that Pseudomonas was an engineered bacterium and there was nothing wrong in giving it a patent number as it was my product. Even after the Court of Customs and Patents Appeals Office ruled the judgement to my favour, the PTO resisted giving the patent.

GE, applied to the Supreme Court, on my behalf. Thereafter started an analysis of the existing clauses for patentibility and a critical examination of the possible repercussions that would come to the fore, should the patent be granted to the Pseudomonas.

Judicial processes are very lengthy. The Supreme Court gave its verdict in 1980, saying that the bacterium I developed was substantially modified so as to meet the criterion for patentability.

But is it true that you were unable to prove the capability of the Pseudomonas?

The quality of Pseudomonas to consume oil is proven to the extent that it cannot be questioned. But it was not tried as there was no way I could prove its safety and non-toxicity in the open seas.

The bacteria, by itself is non-toxic but once in the open-environment it can combine with pathogenic elements and show undesirable results.

As there is no-recall once the Pseudomonas is released in the open sea, the utility of the bacteria still remains ambiguous.

Your patent for the Pseudomonas changed the entire world scenario. What was the impact?

The first immediate impact was that the PTO was flooded with applications from various parts of the world. Scientist's began to isolate, snip, insert, recombine, rearrange, edit, programme and produce biological and genetic material.

In fact, scientists for the first time, began to have the potential to become the architects of life, - the authors of a technological evolution designed to create newer species of microbes, plants and animals that are more profitable for agriculture, industry, biomass energy production, and research, than the ones naturally existing.

As creation of new-life became `legally' possible, bio-policymakers and the judiciary around the world began to face a tough time in formulating appropriate clauses as guidelines for scientists, in `what they can do' and `what they should do'.

Body parts and genetic materials began to be sold and patented, manipulated and engineered. An unprecedented change was observed in many of our most basic social and legal definitions. Scientific and legal jargons obscured important moral distinctions.

While a storm of pro-life protests resulted in some minor modifications in the existing laws, the use of human embryos in genetic research still remains legal.

Human life has now become a commercial commodity as billions of dollars enter into the global genetics market.

The legal distinctions between life and machine, between life and commodity, is gradually beginning to vanish. Maybe, in the near future, human cloning technology will be patented. We never know.


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