April 6, 2008

ETC Group: Extreme Monopoly: Patent Grab on Synthetic Genomes

Filed under: Genmanipulation — omeganews @ 9:01 pm
ETC Group
News Release
8 December 2007
Extreme Monopoly:

Venter’s Team Makes Vast Patent Grab on Synthetic Genomes

Six months ago ETC Group exposed the Venter Institute’s controversial patent applications on the world’s first human-made living organism built entirely from synthetic DNA (dubbed “Synthia” by ETC Group). Newly published patent claims reveal an even bigger grab for ownership of synthetic life.

A suite of patent applications lodged by J. Craig Venter and his colleagues claims exclusive monopoly on a wide swath of synthetic biology and demonstrate a not-so-subtle move to position Venter’s company, Synthetic Genomics, Inc., as the ‘microbesoft’ of synthetic life. Find out about “The Men & Money Behind Synthia.”

This time, Venter’s shop isn’t claiming a single microbe (Synthia) made from synthetic DNA – the new claims are broadly framed to seek exclusive monopoly on ALL synthetic genomes. Venter’s latest bid for extreme monopoly has drawn strong condemnation – but not much surprise – from civil society and from scientists in the field of synthetic biology.

“It appears that Craig Venter’s lawyers have constructed a legal rats’ nest of monopoly claims that may entangle the entire field of synthetic biology,” explains Jim Thomas of ETC Group. “These patent applications need to be looked at very closely indeed. For example, the list includes proprietary claims on basic research steps such as adding synthetic DNA to a living organism – which pretty much sums up the current field of synthetic biology.”

Despite repeated attempts to reach Dr. Venter and Synthetic Genomics, Inc., there was no response to ETC Group’s request for comment.

Dr. Tom Knight, senior research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, describes some of the claims as “absurdly, ridiculously broad.” He told ETC Group that Venter’s patent claims on synthetic genomes “evidence a lack of respect for prior art which is breathtaking.”

“This is extremely serious,” said Knight, “If the claims were to be granted, it’s like saying ‘we own life.'”

Dr. Paul Oldham from the ESRC Centre for Economic & Social Aspects of Genomics (CESAGen) at Lancaster University (UK) recently analyzed the portfolio of synthetic biology patent applications made by Venter and his scientific team (see chart below). What emerges is a series of applications from 2005 that seek exceptionally broad and far-reaching claims on the creation of synthetic genomes, and methods for transplanting them into living host cells (or cell-like systems) that may subsequently yield products of interest. In theory, synthetic cells could be designed to have properties useful to industry – such as producing ethanol, hydrogen or other synthetic fuels. The claims extend to virtually any genome that has been partly or wholly modified using synthetic DNA, whether “substantially identical” to a natural genome or not. They also claim ownership of the living cells that result.

The patent applications also hint that Venter, famous for speeding up the reading of genomes using his ‘shotgun sequencing’ method, may be working on a new method to speed up the assembly of whole synthetic genomes – a sort of ‘shotgun synthesis.’ The patents describe a system for rapid automated prototyping of synthetic organisms that could produce millions of new synthetic organisms per day. Read more about “shotgun synthesis” here.

Another pioneer in the field of synthetic biology, Harvard University professor of genetics, Dr. George Church, told ETC Group that he believes Venter’s strategy has more to do with raising money than innovation. “When you’re trying to raise money, the more people who talk about it – the more you get attention. Knowing Venter’s track record – he’s trying to reinforce that. He’s going after bragging rights on the first [synthetic] genome,” said Church.

Wake Up Call: The patent claims are meant to be a harbinger of big news. In a matter of weeks or months, Venter’s scientific team is hoping to make history by announcing the creation of the world’s first-ever human-made species – a bacterium made entirely with synthetic DNA in the laboratory. Although Venter’s Institute has already applied for worldwide patents on Synthia, it remains a theoretical achievement to date. How is Venter’s team attempting to build a synthetic life-form? “The Story of Synthia” is available here.

No one knows when scientists will actually produce a fully functioning, self-replicating organism made from synthetic DNA. According to Venter, the announcement will be withheld until the work is simultaneously published in a scientific journal.

Venter asserts that he wants to create commercial microbes that produce drugs, chemicals and fuels. Earlier this year he told Business Week, If we made an organism that produced fuel, that could be the first billion- or trillion-dollar organism. We would definitely patent that whole process.”

Some scientists contacted by ETC Group are confident that Venter’s patent claims will be rejected by patent examiners because they fail to pass the test of being novel and non-obvious inventions. ETC Group puts no faith in a patent system that, over the past quarter century, has awarded sweeping patents on all biological products and processes. Corporate giants like Monsanto (and Microsoft) have won monopolies that are used to quash competition and stifle research. And, even the most egregious claims, once granted, can take decades to overturn in court (and millions of dollars in legal fees).

“The fledgling synthetic biology industry keeps talking about how they’re going to fix climate change – but these sweeping patent claims reveal that the companies are much more focused on securing profits than on human needs,” explains Hope Shand of ETC Group. Venter’s research on synthetic microbes is supported by millions of dollars in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy. “Taxpayer dollars support this research, but public debate and regulatory oversight of synthetic biology lag far behind,” adds Shand.

See ETC Group’s snapshot of the new synthetic biology industry – “Syndustry.”

Open-science advocate, Dr. Richard Jefferson, founder of BIOS – Biological Innovation for Open Society – believes that, if the patents are granted, Venter might be convinced to surrender them to a “protected commons” where basic research tools can be used without fees as long as subsequent improvements are made freely available. Although inconsistent with Venter’s prior actions, that possibility cannot be ruled out.

The final disposition of Venter’s patent claims, whether or not they are granted in whole or in part, or placed in the public domain, doesn’t resolve serious concerns about how synthetic biology will be used or abused, and what impacts it will have on society, said Kathy Jo Wetter of ETC Group. “Venter has suggested that one published article reviewing ethical concerns related to synthetic biology, [in the journal Science in 1999], is all that was needed to give his work a green light. In reality, the public debate on synthetic biology has yet to begin,” said Wetter.

For further information:

ETC Group (Montreal, Canada)

Jim Thomas

Tel: +1 514 516-5759

ETC Group (Carrboro, NC, USA)

Hope Shand

Kathy Jo Wetter

Tel: +1 919 960-5223

ETC Group (Ottawa, Canada)

Pat Mooney

Tel: +1 613 2412267

ETC Group (Mexico)

Silvia Ribeiro

Tel: +52 5555 632664

Synthetic Genomes:

Patent Application Portfolio of the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI)

and Synthetic Genomics, Inc.


Patent Application Number

Filing Date (earliest provisional application)

Publication Date



# of claims

Installation of genomes or partial genomes into cells or cell-like systems US20070269862A1 23 Dec. 2005P 22 Nov. 2007 John Glass; Lei Young; Carole Lartigue; Nacyra Assad-Garcia; Hamilton Smith;

Clyde Hutchison;

J. Craig Venter

None 18
Synthetic Genomes US20070264688 6 Dec 2005P 15 Nov. 2007 J. Craig Venter; Hamilton Smith; Clyde Hutchison None (This invention was made with U.S. govt. support -DOE grant number DE-FG02-02ER63453). 38
Synthesis of Error-Minimized Nucleic Acid Molecules US20070128649/WO2007065035 2 Dec 2005P 7 June 2007 Lei Young No assignee for U.S. app; WIPO app. assigned to Synthetic Genomics, Inc. 21
Minimal Bacterial Genome US20070122826 /WO2007047148 12 Oct 2005P 31 May 2007 John Glass;

Hamilton Smith; Clyde Hutchison; Nina Alperovich; Nacyra Assad-Garcia

Method for In Vitro Recombination US20070037196/WO2007032837 11 Aug 2005P 15 Feb. 2007 Daniel Glenn Gibson;

Hamilton Smith

JCVI (Aspects of the invention were made with govt. support -DOE grant number DE- FGO2-02ER63453 63 original

24 cancelled

39 remaining

Amplification and Cloning of Single DNA Molecules Using Rolling Circle Amplification WO2006119066

29 April 2005P 7 June 2007 JCVI 62

Source: Based on information provided by Dr. Paul Oldham, CESAGen

Note: According to the website of Synthetic Genomics, Inc.: “Synthetic Genomics handles the prosecution of any patent applications covering intellectual property developed by the JCVI under a Sponsored Research Agreement between Synthetic Genomics and JCVI. Rights to any resulting patents are assigned to Synthetic Genomics.”


ETC Group: Venter Builds Longest Synthetic DNA Sequence that Doesn’t Work

ETC Group
News Release
24 January 2008
Venter Institute Builds Longest Sequence of Synthetic DNA (that Doesn’t Work)
“It’s not how long – but how wise” cautions ETC Group
ETC Group today renewed its call for a moratorium on the release and commercialization of synthetic organisms, asserting that societal debate on the oversight of synthetic biology is urgently overdue. The renewed call came as J. Craig Venter’s research team announced that it has constructed a bacterial-length synthetic genome in the lab using mail-order synthetic DNA sequences. They’ve named the synthetic genome, Mycoplasma genitalium JCVI-1.0, and it’s similar to its counterpart in nature, a genital bacterium with the smallest known genome of any free living organism. The announcement is not breaking news because the work had been previously reported, but the details were published today in Science.
“Venter is claiming bragging rights to the world’s longest length of synthetic DNA, but size isn’t everything. The important question is not ‘how long?’ but ‘how wise?'” says Jim Thomas of ETC Group. “While synthetic biology is speeding ahead in the lab and in the marketplace, societal debate and regulatory oversight is stalled and there has been no meaningful or inclusive discussion on how to govern synthetic biology in a safe and just way. In the absence of democratic oversight profiteering industrialists are tinkering with the building blocks of life for their own private gain. We regard that as unacceptable.”
“The Venter Institute calls this synthetic life version 1.0 and acknowledges that it doesn’t quite work yet – however, society shouldn’t wait for the next upgrade – the stakes are far too serious,” explains Kathy Jo Wetter of ETC Group. “This news means scientists are one step closer to constructing a living, synthetic organism that has the potential for social, economic, and ecological disruption – and society is not at all prepared for that.” said Wetter.
Venter’s immediate goal is to conjure a designer genome, synthesize it and insert it into a cell so that it survives and replicates as a new species, dubbed “Synthia.” What’s being reported in Science today is not Synthia – but rather the largest DNA molecule ever constructed entirely from off-the-shelf DNA. Venter’s team assembled 582,970 base pairs – an order of magnitude greater that the previous record (32,000 bases). According to the paper in Science the genome has not been successfully transplanted into a living cell. The only completely synthetic genomes previously re-constructed belong to viruses – including deadly pathogens such as the poliovirus and the 1918 flu virus. The genome of any viral organism on the “select agents” list can be constructed in the laboratory using mail order synthetic DNA sequences. (Select agents refers to the U.S. government’s list of deadly microbial pathogens and toxins made by living organisms.) Today’s announcement opens the door to constructing dangerous bacterial select agents – such as the bacterium that causes anthrax.
A comic strip depicting Venter’s plans to build a synthetic organism is available on ETC Group’s website:
Beyond Synthia:
Craig Venter’s attempt to build Synthia, the world’s first organism with a fully synthetic genome, is the most high profile example of “extreme genetic engineering” or synthetic biology (Syn Bio). Synthetic biologists are building novel genetic sequences and new synthetic organisms for chemical, drug and fuel production, re-engineering life in the lab for industrial purposes. In terms of technological maturity synthetic biology is still pretty much in diapers, yet is currently enjoying billions of dollars of investment in a push towards rapid commercialization.
This avalanche of new money comes from governments, venture capitalists and large corporations including BP, Shell, Cargill, Dupont and Virgin Group. Just this week synthetic biology company Solazyme teamed up with Chevron, the world’s seventh largest corporation, to develop biodiesel from synthetically altered algae. Dupont already produces a commercial bioplastic using a synthetic organism. BP is an equity investor in Venter’s company, Synthetic Genomics, Inc. The company has applied for far-reaching patents that would grant it exclusive monopoly over key processes in the emerging industry. For a graphic overview of the synthetic biology industry and the investors behind Synthetic Genomics, Inc. See ETC Group’s “Syndustry” poster and “The Men & Money Behind Synthia.” – both available here:
Debate Dismissed
Most synthetic biologists have attempted to brush aside the ethical issues and governance of synthetic biology by commissioning soft reviews prepared by syn bio insiders and enthusiasts. The most recent report, funded by the Sloan Foundation, makes no policy recommendations, emphasizes voluntary measures, fails to adequately consult civil society and ignores many central concerns about the societal impacts of the technology. ETC Group’s response to the Sloan report is available here:
Note for Editors:
A year ago at the World Social Forum in Nairobi, ETC Group released a 70-page report examining the societal implications of synthetic biology. Extreme Genetic Engineering – an introduction to synthetic biology is available for free download online:
For further information:
ETC Group (Montreal, Canada)
Jim Thomas
Tel: +1 514 6674932
cell: +1 514 516-5759
ETC Group (Carrboro, NC, USA)
Hope Shand
Kathy Jo Wetter
Tel: +1 919 960-5223
ETC Group (Ottawa, Canada)
Pat Mooney
Tel: +1 613 2412267
ETC Group (Mexico)
Silvia Ribeiro
Tel: +52 5555 632664


Patenting Pandora’s Bug: Goodbye, Dolly…Hello, Synthia! J. Craig Venter Institute Seeks Monopoly Patents on the World’s First-Ever Human-Made Life Form

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News Release
ETC Group
7 June 2007

Patenting Pandora’s Bug

Goodbye, Dolly…Hello, Synthia

Goodbye, Dolly…Hello, Synthia!
J. Craig Venter Institute Seeks Monopoly Patents on the World’s First-Ever Human-Made Life Form

ETC Group Will Challenge Patents on “Synthia” – Original Syn Organism Created in Laboratory
Ten years after Dolly the cloned sheep made her stunning debut, the J. Craig Venter Institute is applying for a patent on a new biological bombshell – the world’s first-ever human-made species. The novel bacterium is made entirely with synthetic DNA in the laboratory.

The Venter Institute – named for its founder and CEO, J. Craig Venter, the scientist who led the private sector race to map the Human Genome – is applying for worldwide patents on what they refer to as “Mycoplasma laboratorium.” In the tradition of ‘Dolly,’ ETC has nicknamed this synthetic organism (or ‘syn’) ‘Synthia.’

“Synthia may not be as cuddly as a cloned lamb, but we believe this is a much bigger deal,” explains Jim Thomas of ETC Group, a civil society organization that is calling on the world’s patent offices to reject the applications. “These monopoly claims signal the start of a high-stakes commercial race to synthesize and privatize synthetic life forms. Will Venter’s company become the ‘Microbesoft’ of synthetic biology?” asks Jim Thomas.

“For the first time, God has competition,” adds Pat Mooney of ETC Group. “Venter and his colleagues have breached a societal boundary, and the public hasn’t even had a chance to debate the far-reaching social, ethical and environmental implications of synthetic life,” said Mooney.

In Vivo, In Vitro, In-Venter? Published on May 31, 2007, the Venter Institute’s US Patent application (number 20070122826) claims exclusive ownership of a set of essential genes and a synthetic “free-living organism that can grow and replicate” that is made using those genes. The Venter Institute has also filed an international patent application at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO number WO2007047148, published April 27, 2007) which names more than 100 countries where it may seek monopoly patents.

Pandora pending: Patent experts consulted by ETC Group indicate that, based on the language used in the application, the Venter Institute researchers had probably not achieved a fully-functioning organism at the time of the filing (October 12, 2006).

“It has been eight months since the Institute applied for its patents, so we don’t know how much progress they’ve made, whether there is a scientific paper in press or how imminent the first synthetic species is,” said Pat Mooney of ETC Group. “We’ve been hearing for more than two years now that Venter is on the verge of announcing the birth of a new bacterium. Many people think Venter’s company has the scientific expertise to do the job,” said Mooney.

Venter’s Institute claims that its stripped-down microbe could be the key to cheap energy production. The patent application claims any version of “Synthia” that can make ethanol or hydrogen. Since the research was partially funded by the US Department of Energy, the US government will hold “certain rights” to the patent, if approved.

“It’s purely speculation and hype that syns [synthetic living organisms] will be used to ameliorate climate change by producing cheap ethanol or hydrogen,” said Jim Thomas. “The same minimal microbe could be harnessed to build a virulent pathogen that could pose grave threats to people and the planet,” he said.

“Synthetic biologists have already assembled the poliovirus from off-the-shelf DNA, a feat that its constructor called ‘a giant wake up call’ because of the biowarfare implications. Syns are being hyped as a green, climate-change solution in order to deflect concerns that they could be used as bioweapons,” adds Silvia Ribeiro of ETC Group.

The patent application is also a wake-up call to synthetic biologists who are advocating for “open source” biology – the idea that the fundamental tools and components of synthetic biology should be freely accessible to researchers. In the June 4 issue of Newsweek Craig Venter boasts, “If we made an organism that produced fuel, that could be the first billion- or trillion-dollar organism. We would definitely patent that whole process.” In 2005, Venter founded Synthetic Genomics, Inc. to commercialize synthetic microbes for use in energy, agriculture and climate change remediation.

Syn of Omission? Synthetic biologists may also be dismayed to learn that Synthia is being patented for what it is not. The patent application explains that the inventors arrived at their minimal genome by determining which genes are essential and which are not. Remarkably, their patent application claims any synthetically-constructed organism that lacks at least 55 of 101 genes that they’ve determined are non-essential. “All synthetic biologists developing functionalized microbes are going to have to pay close attention to the claim on a ‘non-essential’ set of genes. If someone creates another bug that lacks some of the same genes that Synthia lacks, will the Venter Institute sue them for infringing its patent?” asks Kathy Jo Wetter of ETC Group.

Action Needed: Before syns are allowed to go forward, society must debate whether they are socially acceptable or desirable: How could their accidental release into the environment be prevented or the effects of their intentional release be evaluated? Who will control them, and how? How will research be regulated? In 2006 a coalition of 38 civil society organizations called on synthetic biologists to withdraw proposals for self-governance of the technology.

Today, ETC Group is writing to Dr. J. Craig Venter, CEO of the J. Craig Venter Institute, asking him to withdraw the Institute’s patent applications filed at the U.S. PTO and WIPO, pending a full public debate over the implications of creating synthetic life forms.

“We don’t want to engage in a long-term legal strategy to slap down bad patents. These patents must be struck down before they’re issued,” said ETC Group’s Hope Shand. Last month, ETC Group won its 13-year legal challenge when the European Patent Office revoked Monsanto’s species-wide soybean patent.

ETC is also writing to WIPO and the U.S. PTO, asking them to reject the patent on the grounds that it is contrary to ordre public (public morality and safety). Later this month ETC Group will attend Synthetic Biology 3.0 (an international conference of synthetic biologists) in Zürich, Switzerland June 24-26 where it will call upon scientists to join in a global dialogue on synthetic biology. ETC will organize meetings with governments and civil society during the upcoming scientific subcommittee meetings of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Paris, July 2-6, in order to discuss the implications of the creation of synthetic life forms for the Biodiversity Convention and for its protocol on biosafety. ETC Group will convene a global meeting of civil society actors on this and related issues within the next year.

Notes to Editors: See attached backgrounder.

For further information:

Jim Thomas (Montreal) Tel: 1 514 271 2539

Pat Mooney (Ottawa) Mobile: +1 613 261 0688

Silvia Ribeiro (Mexico) Tel: + 52 5555 6326 64

Kathy Jo Wetter (North Carolina) Tel: +1 919 960-5223

Hope Shand (North Carolina) Tel: +1 919 960-5223

Categories: BANG/Convergence, Biodiversity & Genetic Resources, Biological Warfare, Biotechnology, Geoengineering, Intellectual Property & Patents, Nanotechnology, Other New Technologies, Synthetic Biology

Informant: Dorothee Krien


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