In 1972, when former General Electric microbiologist Ananda Chakrabarty tried to patent a microbe that could clean up oil spills, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office denied his request. Life, the PTO told him, could not be patented.
But Chakrabarty appealed the decision, and in 1980, the Supreme Court agreed with him. “The relevant distinction [is] not between living and inanimate things,” wrote Chief Justice Warren Burger, but that microbes such as the one Chakrabarty identified are “human-made inventions.”
In making a distinction between life that stems from a natural process and life that results from a bioengineered one, the court paved the way for a heady gold rush to patent the human genome. More and more frequently, we hear of some scientist who has unlocked the delicate coding behind our most dreaded fears (breast cancer) or narcissistic obsessions (baldness).
Who owns what? Turn the page and you’ll see the anatomy of this corporate-funded new science. Produced with the reporting help of Hope Shand, research director of the pioneering biotech watchdog group Rural Advancement Foundation International, it shows just how much of the market has already been claimed by a handful of companies, most of them bankrolled by multinational pharmaceutical giants.
Biotech professionals defend patents as the only way to recoup research costs. But technology critic Jeremy Rifkin argues that such market-driven logic will only lead to a new, commercial eugenics, undoubtedly in the direction of our genetically altered centerfold. In an essay adapted from his new book, The Biotech Century, Rifkin looks beyond biotech’s beneficent promises and exposes where genetic tinkering—propelled by our own desires—is really taking us.