J. Craig Venter is famous within the biological community for both his development of the "shotgun" method of genome sequencing and behavior that some view as egomaniacal. In a number of cases, he's partially sequenced his own genome (or his pet's), declared victory over public sequencing efforts, and moved on to other projects, leaving others to finish off the work. In recent years, his focus has shifted to synthetic life—cells directed by simplified genomes engineered to perform useful tasks such as fuel production or drug synthesis. But, in pursuing that goal, he's accumulating a patent portfolio that may inhibit biotech research in general.
The concept of synthetic life may be a bit of a misnomer. Venter's approach has involved characterizing bacteria that have radically reduced genome sizes in order to determine the minimum set of genes necessary to support life in a favorable environment. With that list of genes in hand, researchers could then create DNA encoding them from scratch, using machines that can chemically manufacture short stretches of DNA. Those stretches can be assembled into longer pieces (Venter's coworkers have patented an assembly method), eventually producing a genome that's never actually seen a living organism.
DNA on its own can't accomplish much; it needs to be processed by proteins, supported by a variety of chemical compounds, and separated from the environment by a membrane. All of those could possibly be arranged, but it's far simpler to just take an existing cell, wipe out its genome, and replace it with the synthesized one. Whether this represents synthetic life or an engineered variation of existing life is largely a matter of philosophy and public relations. In either case, rumors have circulated that Venter's group has already achieved this, but are awaiting the publication of a scientific paper before formally announcing it.
If there were any doubts regarding these rumors, patent applications by Venter and his associates should put them to rest. In November, applications were filed, entitled Synthetic genomes and Installation of genomes or partial genomes into cells or cell-like systems, that describe this process in detail. But, in typical patent fashion, they also generalize the process in such a way that it applies to a wide variety of other potentially useful processes. The latter claims a patent on, "obtaining a genome that is not within a cell; and introducing the genome into a cell or cell-like system." A further 17 clauses expand that claim to nearly every potentially imaginable form of DNA or membrane-contained space. The former spends five clauses just to expand the claim about DNA to a huge range different sized DNA molecules, including just about any size that's convenient for biologists to work with.
The ETC Group, which has been agitating against Venter, suggests that this is an attempt to dominate synthetic life, calling it an attempt to create a "Microbesoft" like monopoly. "It appears that Craig Venter's lawyers have constructed a legal rats' nest of monopoly claims that may entangle the entire field of synthetic biology," ETC's Jim Thomas said in a statement.
The key question will be whether these new applications will survive the more stringent test of obviousness that resulted from a recent Supreme Court decision. Although the patents suggest a few clever twists on work that's already being done in many labs, most of what's described appears to be an extension of commonly utilized lab techniques to organismal genomes (researchers commonly do this work with viral genomes already). In fact, due to the vague phrasing, the patents would actually cover somatic cell nuclear transplant, a technique for creating embryonic stem cells that's been in the news recently. Given the overlap with existing work, it seems doubtful that these patents would survive the barrage of lawyers that universities and the biotech industry could subject them to if those groups run afoul of licensing issues.