Monday, November 01, 2010

Sequence just wants to be free

Posted by Nathaniel Comfort on 11/01 at 02:54 PM

The patents held by Myriad Genetics on the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, strongly implicated in breast cancer, received another challenge this week, when an amicus brief was filed with the Dept. of Justice, claiming that naturally occurring human genes ought not to be patentable. This follows a move last March to strike down the patents. Both are still pending appeals and so the patents may stand for some time. But striking them down is the right thing to do. I say this not as a legal scholar (something I could hardly be further from being), but as a blogger.

The blogosphere is built on the notion that there are millions of people out there with free time and expertise. Incredibly, lots of people have proven willing to research, analyze, and write a lot of stuff, totally for free. Even more incredibly, a few manage to make money at it. And a handful of companies have figured out how to get really, seriously rich. From giving stuff away.

Biotechnology was born of two simultaneous revolutions that have come to define modern life: the molecular revolution and the digital one.

The power of molecular biology that stems from Watson & Crick’s recognition of how the pairing of nucleotides along the mirror-image DNA chains explained how genetic information could be passed down. “It has not escaped our attention,” they wrote, in one of the most arch sentences in the history of biology, “that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.”

The discovery of the double helix prompted a welter of imaginative schemes for how genetic information could be encoded in DNA sequence. The prettiest was Crick’s “comma-free code,” an idea that ranks with Aristotle’s crystalline spheres of the cosmos as among the theories of nature so beautiful one wishes they were true.

Early molecular biology was chocked full of informational and especially textual metaphors: code, messengers, templates, reading heads, transcription, translation, and so on.

In the 1970s, with the development of genetic engineering techniques, especially recombinant DNA, these metaphors gained empirical power. Thinking about nucleic acid sequences as linear messages, like ticker tape or magnetic recording tape, helped researchers envision means for “splicing” and “cutting and pasting” DNA. When philosophers ask why biologists focus so on DNA, when proteins are in many ways the most relevant—even arguably the most fundamental—molecules in the body, they are missing the practical point. It is precisely the ability to think of DNA as code—computer code, now—that gives DNA its power. Linear DNA has only four elements and no physical conformations to worry about. It is pure, abstract. It can be manipulated—engineered—in a way that will always be messier with proteins. The biotech revolution occurred for the same reasons as the computer revolution, because it was based on the same metaphors.

In recent years, the most astonishing thing to come out of the internet is the realization that everything we thought we knew about the economics of information was wrong. “Information wants to be free,” went the old cliché from the hippie programmers of Marin County—and it turns out to be true. Microsoft built its empire by building an (almost) impermeable wall around its operating system. Apple did the same, with more beauty but fewer profits.

But then came the browser wars, which puzzled many observers, because the stakes were so low. Why would companies fight so bitterly over free software? The Google Guys soon answered the question by dethroning Bill Gates—again, by giving stuff away.

Doing things for free also produces surprisingly reliable information. Wikipedia, much maligned at first, turns out to produce an encyclopedia that is about as trustworthy as old-fashioned expert-driven encyclopedias—and vastly more comprehensive (and therefore useful).

Indie rock bands, authors, and software engineers have shown that you can make money by giving your product away and relying on word-of-mouth and the honor system. Without venture capital and massive advertising you won’t become the next Sergei Brin, but if you hustle you can pay the rent and sleep soundly at night. Proprietary ownership of information is so old school.

Myriad Genetics is the Microsoft of biology. They are trying to force a 20th century economic model/metaphor onto a 21st century technology. The question they should be asking themselves, is how can we become the biotech Facebook?

Sequence wants to be free.

Check it (all the articles below are freely available):
Amicus brief (

Pollack, A. (2010). U.S. says genes should not be eligible for patents. New York Times. New York: B1

Kevles, D. J. (1994). "Ananda Chakrabarty wins a patent: biotechnology, law, and society, 1972-1980."
Hist Stud Phys Biol Sci 25(Pt 1): 111-135.

Watson, J. D. and F. H. C. Crick (1953). "Molecular structure of nucleic acids: a structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid."
Nature 171(25 April 1953): 737-738

Crick, F. H. C., J. S. Griffith, et al. (1957). "Codes without commas."
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 43(5): 416-421

Wadman, M. (2010) Breast cancer gene patents judged invalid.
Nature 10/29/21010 DOI: doi:10.1038/news.2010.160

Tags: computers, dna, myriad genetics, patents