Held: Genes are products of nature

Today the US Supreme Court rules that there cannot be patents on genomic DNA information (PDF – 139kb), only modified DNA products like cDNA. Note that the decision was effectively unanimous, the opinion was written by Thomas, and Scalia’s concurrent opinion is essentially an admission of ignorance in the specialty field. I have not had time to read the full opinion, but at initial review this seems like a very reasonable result. Naturally occurring DNA sequences are, well, natural. Sequences modified with intent may be patent eligible. It will be interesting to see in the future if discovery of naturally occurring sequences that are identical to patented sequences modified naively to match a natural variant will invalidate patents.

Myriad’s DNA claim falls within the law of nature exception.Myriad’s principal contribution was uncovering the precise location and genetic sequence of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes…Myriad did not create or alter either the genetic information encoded in the BCRA1 and BCRA2 genes or the genetic structure of the DNA. It found an important and useful gene, but groundbreaking, innovative, or even brilliant discovery does not by itself satisfy the §101 inquiry…Myriad’s patent descriptions highlight the problem with its claims: They detail the extensive process of discovery, but extensive effort alone is insufficient to satisfy §101’s demands. Myriad’s claims are not saved by the fact that isolating DNA from the human genome severs the chemical bonds that bind gene molecules together. – SCOTUS (PDF -139kb)

Francois Jacob, 1920-2013

François Jacob, a pioneer in our understanding of the regulation of gene expression, passed away on Friday. His work with Jacques Monod was foundational to much of the work in my PhD thesis lab and inspired our approach to understanding splicing regulation in my post-doctoral lab. Like many true insights, his realization about a basic mechanism of biology was so basic and fundamental that seemed like the kind of thing we must have known all along. Maybe we did, but until François Jacob we didn’t know we knew it.

Carl Zimmer tells the story of Jacob’s moment of insight:

In the darkness of the Paris movie theater, Jacob hit on an answer. The repressor is a protein that clamps on to E. coli’s DNA, blocking the production of proteins from the genes for beta-galactosidase and the other genes involved in feeding on lactose. A signal, like a switch on a circuit, causes the repressor to stop shutting down the genes…Perhaps these circuits are common in all living things…But when François tried to sketch out his ideas for his wife, he was disappointed.

“You’ve already told me that,” Lise said. “It’s been known for a long time, hasn’t it?” – Carl Zimmer

*Hat tip to Heidi Smith via PZ Myers.