The brave new world of “owning life” began 32 years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court first approved the patenting of a genetically engineered bacteria that can help decompose oil. By a 5-4 decision, it was the first instance of U.S. law recognizing ownership in a "manufactured" lifeform. On Wednesday, I had the opportunity to participate on a panel with the microbiologist who brought that 1980 case, Ananda Chakrabarty, who was then an employee of General Electric.
The panel was part of a series of live radio programs hosted by Action Speaks! in Providence, Rhode Island, an usually intelligent, spirited show hosted by the genial polymath Marc Levitt. The theme for this fall’s series is “Private Rights and Public Fights,” which is devoted to looking at “moments when the rights of the individual have clashed with the needs or beliefs of the public—and where the line between private and public has been defined or blurred.”
Anyone who noses around the legal literature soon realizes that the case of Diamond v. Chakrabarty is a real landmark case because it opened the door for the patenting of lifeforms. Over the past thirty years, more than 3,000 gene patents have been granted. Nearly 20 percent of the human genome is now privately owned. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has issued nearly 50,000 patents involving human genetic material. Patents have been granted for microorganisms, genetically modified plants and animals, stem cells, tissue and many other living things.
Chakrabarty, now is a 74-year-old professor at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago, had few reflections to offer on the seismic impact of the case. He was proud of his role in legal and scientific history, but he focused mostly on the scientific aspect of his work and of patent law in general. Too bad, because I think the extra-legal, extra-scientific ramifications of the Chakrabarty case have been significant.