What 13,000 Patents Involving the DNA of Sea Life Tell Us About the Future

This is a California brown sea hare. It has some of the biggest brain cells in the animal kingdom.

And this is the bacteria shewanella oneidensis, which can live with or without oxygen.

What they share, beyond the possession of remarkable traits, is that their DNA is included among thousands of patents owned by BASF, which calls itself “the largest chemical producer in the world.” The German company has acquired nearly half of the 13,000 patents derived from 862 marine organisms genetic sequences, according to a study published in June.

Whether a single private entity should be able to set the direction of how the genes of so many living things are used was a piece of a broader debate at the United Nations this month. There, delegates from across the world were discussing the development of a global legal framework for genetic resources in the high seas, a vast realm outside any one nation’s control.

For those interested in the future of innovation, inequality and even dairy alternatives, a closer look at what exactly is being patented offers intriguing hints.

The future will be built on ‘extremophiles’

Alvinella pompejana, a type of deep sea worm, can thrive at temperatures that would kill most living organisms. It has been used in skin creams — and sequences of its genes appear in 18 patents from not only BASF, but also a French research institution.

Genetic prospectors — a term some find offensive, while acknowledging there’s not a great alternative — have a range of motivations. Some are hoping to develop a novel treatment for cancer. Others want to create the next Botox.

Most are looking for organisms with exceptional traits that might offer the missing piece in their new product. That is why patents are filled with“extremophiles,” known for doing well in extreme darkness, cold, acidity and other harsh environments, said Robert Blasiak, a researcher from the Stockholm Resilience Centre who was involved in the patent study.

Your cat is safe from the genetic prospectors

The sea squirt Ecteinascidia turbinata was utilized in the creation of Yondelis, a chemotherapy drug.CreditMichael Lawrence/Lonely Planet Images, via Getty Images

But how can multiple entities patent the same worm — or snail?

In most countries it’s not possible to patent “a product of nature.” But what companies and research institutions can do is patent a novel application of a given organism, or more specifically, its genes.

“It often requires making these Frankenstein synthetic organisms; a little bit of DNA from a lot of different things,” said Mr. Blasiak.

What that basically means is your cat or a coyote in your backyard cannot be patented.

“But if you went out and created a transgenic coyote that no one has done before, then probably yes,” said Dr. Robert Cook-Deegan, a professor at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University.

Welcome to a new form of global inequality

The purple sea urchin, above, is known for its regenerative properties, and its genetic sequences appear in patents from BASF; a German energy company; the American company Monsanto and a Japanese pharmaceutical company. But how many useful applications of a given organism can there really be?

Companies in 10 highly-developed countries (the three above, plus Norway, Britain, France, Denmark, Canada, Israel and the Netherlands) own 98 percent of patents involving marine organisms’ DNA, the study found. Ahead of the talks this week, some policymakers expressed concern that by the time the developing world has acquired the biotech equivalent of a high-speed connection, this new genetic internet will be bought up, fueling a new kind of global inequality.

“This is really is a historic moment in the international law of the sea,” said Harriet Harden-Davies, a researcher the University of Wollongong who was involved in the talks at the U.N.

But maybe it’s O.K. to be left behind when it comes to sperm whale milk

The counterargument, Ms. Harden-Davies explained, is that no one owns the high seas — and developing these products is a costly gamble. So why not incentivize innovation?

Among patent applications that have gotten somewhere: a sea slug contributed to a lymphoma treatment, a sea squirt’s genes helped in a chemotherapy drug and a marine snail’s DNA were used to formulate a pain medication, Mr. Blasiak said. But most don’t ever make it to market.

“Patents secure the underlying investments,” said a representative from BASF in an email.

Plus — when you look closely at some of these patents, it becomes clear that they don’t all exactly guarantee global domination. Take, for example, what has been referred to as “a patent on sperm whales.” What has actually been patented are gene sequences from the whales that could be used in the manufacturing of a dairy substitute.

The patent belongs to a Berkeley-based company called Perfect Day. Though oat milk’s ascension has demonstrated that anything is possible, the document itself reveals ambivalence about whether whale milk is the way to go. Here are some other animals whose genes are also cited in the patent: sheep, buffalo, camel, horse, donkey, lemur, panda, guinea pig, squirrel, bear, gorilla, mountain goat, wallaby, elephant, fox, lion, tiger, woolly mammoth and human.

People who are anti-G.M.O. may face tough choices

Omega-3 fatty acids are often promoted as good for one’s health. But one of the most reliable source of these fatty acids are wild fish that face overfishing.

It’s often the marine microorganisms consumed by the fish that produce those nutrients. And so by modifying the genetic code of a Canola plant with DNA from those tiny organisms, BASF has begun experimenting with growing Omega-3 fatty acids on land., (The project is now in field trials.)

If technologies like these end up facilitating more sustainable food production, environmentalists and others who oppose genetically modified organisms may face a choice: continue to oppose these products or consider exceptions when the benefits are clear and large.

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