Copyrighting a Genome

This is a story of how synthetic life might follow the same development of Youtube’s copyrighting laws. 

Youtube and Copyright

Youtube was invented in 2005. From my perspective, it started gaining traction shortly after. I remember uploading 5 minutes’ worth of me dancing to the Pokémon theme song. It took more than 5 hours. Compared to now, Youtube and the internet in general was still in the dark ages. As any technology develops, so do the laws surrounding it. Early Youtube copyright regulation was non-existent, you could basically post whatever you wanted. Like LimeWire, there would be pushback from artists and owners of the content. This would force Youtube to develop a more sophisticated form of regulating against copyright infringement. Given that anyone can create anything on the internet, this also forced governments to create new laws which effectively shifted the internet from anything goes to more regulation. As of November 4th, 2022, Z-library, a popular database of books and articles, was shut down by the FBI (https://www.theverge.com/2022/11/20/23469142/feds-arrest-russians-z-library-pirated-ebooks). To the dismay of many poor college students getting their textbooks for free, the two owners of the database were arrested for copyright infringement. This goes to show that updating laws and developing technology go hand in hand. A discussion of an up and coming technology follows. 

Synthetic Biology – A New Field with New Implications

All life has a DNA blueprint – a blueprint that is used to build up life. If we could synthesize DNA in a lab, could we synthesize life? It turns out Craig Venter and his lab set out to do just this in 2003 (https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2237126100). Obviously, synthesizing multicellular life then and now is impossible, so the lab set out to synthesize a popular bacteriophage (virus that infects bacteria) called φX. Given that this bacteriophage was heavily researched, its genome was far from a mystery. Venter and his team wanted to see if they could synthesize it from scratch. It involved purifying and stitching together φX’s genes and infecting E.coli with them. Although φX had some mutation’s after its synthesis and introduction into E.coli, its infectiousness was prevalent after synthesis from scratch. 

From 2003 to 2010 the speed at which you can create synthetic genomes improved. Along with this came the creation of synthetic bacteria. Synthesizing bacteria from scratch raised the question: what was the minimal number of genes required to sustain a viable, autonomous organism? Without going into the nitty-gritty of how researchers got to this number, I’m going to just flat out say it: 473 genes, that’s it. One downside was that the bacteria grew slower, and it seemed that fine-tuned regulatory networks were wonky compared to the native strain. There must be a native strain of which to reference when creating synthetic life. A painter can only create on the background of a canvas.

Copyrighting a Genome 

Creating synthetic life is still in its infancy. And as with any new technology, laws surrounding it are new or still non-existent. Like the development of copyrighting laws on Youtube, I believe that synthetic biology will take the same road. On Youtube, determining who owns what is simple: if you created it, you own it. This premise remains the same with synthetic genomics, however, there is a caveat. I’ll illustrate it with this example: suppose a company creates a commercially viable bacteria that solves a profitable problem. Copyright and patent law would prevent company #2 from doing the same thing with an identical bacterium. The issue is that company #2 could change a small sequence of DNA, call it their own, and profit from it. Therefore, copyrighting laws in the field of synthetic biology would need to specify how much DNA changes are required to call synthetic life your creation. Coming up with that number is evidently a challenge given the fact that assembling synthetic life is prone to mutation. With new science, comes new policy – and that is one of the reasons why science takes time. Youtube copyrighting was established in 2012, about 7 years after its conception; only the future knows how long the copyrighting trajectory of synthetic biology will take. 

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