The minimal-er genome

Remember the hubbub around the J. Craig Venter Institute’s announcement that it had tried to patent the “minimal genome”?  Back in 2007, JCVI announced that had applied for a patent on a “minimal genome”. The idea was that by identifying the maximal set of genes that could be safely deleted from the smallest known bacterial genome, that of Mycoplasma genitalium, all unnecessary biological complexity could be eliminated, giving biologists the ultimate sandbox in which they could tinker with their favorite gene circuits without fear of unwanted interference from the host organism. And Craig Venter’s private research institute would own it all…

Was it all a publicity stunt, or was JCVI on the verge of becoming the “microbesoft” (as the New Scientist put it at the time) of the blossoming field of synthetic biology?

The patent was filed 2007, which means that correspondence between JCVI and the US Patent and Trademark Office is now publicly available. So what did the USPTO think? Anyone can find out for themselves by searching for application 11/546,364 at the USPTO’s web site.

No patent has been granted yet, but the documents do reveal a back-and-forth between the USTPO and JCVI. Essentially, the USPTO told JCVI that their original claims were would need to be handled as six different inventions. JCVI decided to pursue claims relating only to the first of these six inventions. These were the core of the patent application, claiming various permutations of “a set of genes that provides the information required for growth and replication of a free-living organism under axenic conditions in a rich bacterial culture medium”. This means that they abandoned claims under this application relating to ethanol or hydrogen production, and also that they also abandoned claims under this application relating to assembling their minimal set of genes into a single DNA molecule, a.k.a. genome.

There was also a fair bit of technical patent lingo that I didn’t understand about species selection for the core claims. I think in this case that “species” refers to a “specific” gene, on which the claims of a unique set of genes must center. JCVI apparently chose an ATP-binding ABC transporter gene as the “species” of their application.

So, how important is this patent likely to be? In my view, not very important. I don’t know what other patents JCVI is busy prosecuting, and they have reported some fascinating work on the construction synthetic genomes. The construction of the synthetic ~500,000 bp genome was a technical tour de force, and in my view, building artificial DNAs of that length will likely find much broader application than will merely listing a “set of genes that provides the information required for growth and replication of a free-living organism under axenic conditions in a rich bacterial culture medium”.

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