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Inventing life: patent law and synthetic biology

By Alison McLennan & Matthew Rimmer

The field of synthetic biology poses a number of challenges for patent law.

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With promises of improved medical treatments, greener energy and even artificial life, the field of synthetic biology has captured the public imagination and attracted significant government and commercial investment.

This excitement reached a crescendo on 21 May 2010, when scientists at the J Craig Venter Institute in the United States announced that they had made a “self-replicating synthetic bacterial cell”. This was the first living cell to have an entirely human-made genome, which means that all of the cell’s characteristics were controlled by a DNA sequence designed by scientists.

This achievement in biological engineering was made possible by combining molecular biotechnology, gene synthesis technology and information technology.

Possibilities of synthetic biology
In his autobiography, A Life Decoded, J. Craig Venter contends that synthetic biology has the potential to address concerns about energy security, climate change and sustainable development: “My company, Synthetic Genomics Inc., is already trying to turn an organism into a biofactory that could make clean hydrogen fuel from sunlight and water or soak up more carbon dioxide.”

He elaborated on his long-term scientific aspirations: “From there I want to take us far from shore into unknown waters, to a new phase of evolution, to the day when one DNA-based...

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Alison McLennan 
is a PhD candidate & Vice-Chancellor’s Scholar at the Australian National University, where Matthew Rimmer is an 
ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor in Intellectual Property. This article was originally published at The Conversation.