writes in with this interesting thought on patents and oil-eating bacteria:
"I have been wondering if or when Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty's and GE's patented "oil-eating bacteria" will be used to help clean the gulf oil leak. This patent was originally rejected, and the rejection was challenged in the landmark case before the Supreme Court in Diamond v. Chakrabarty. This was the first attempt on a patent for living organism, and after some back and forth, the Supreme Court narrowly decided that living organisms could, in fact, be patented.
So, thanks to patents, there are now oil-eating bacteria than can help out BP in the Gulf, right? Not so fast, according to Scienceblogs:
"Not only did the engineered oil-eating bacteria spark debate on ownership and patentability of living organisms, but it also began discussion of how and when genetically engineered organisms could be released into the environment. This question is far from solved, with the fate of genetically engineered organisms to clean up oil or perform other kinds of environmental bioremediation still unclear as the possible harm to the environment by uncontrolled growth of engineered strains is weighed against the environmental impact of what the bacteria are designed to clean up. In the case of the oil-eating bacteria, the interests of the oil company also play a role--you don't want uncontrolled growth of an organism that eats your product getting into your wells. While such uncontrolled growth is unlikely because the bacteria need injection of other elemental fertilizers besides the carbon in the oil to grow, it is something that has been brought up. Importantly, however, the bacteria often just can't compete with the scale of the disaster alone. The bacterial metabolism of crude oil cannot move faster than the oil kills wildlife, but oil-eating bacteria have been and will continue to be part of the long-term clean-up process for oil spills."
So the patent that opened the doors for patents on living organism can't even get us out of this mess because it turns out it might not be that practical."
Of course, you have to wonder if this kind of oil-eating bacteria wasn't locked up to one provider for many years due to a patent, if much of that research on how to make it both safe and practical would have been done already. Probably could have helped a lot. Instead, we set things up so that living organisms can be patented, limiting the ability to do actual research on the impact of those patented organisms to just one party, greatly limiting our understanding of their practicality and safety. Progress?