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Open Source Biotech Makes Its Mark

sem_colour.gifWe've followed the progress of open source bioscience from early on. The logic of open biotechnology is quite compelling, and potentially very world-changing, as it can make the tools and techniques for improved health and development widely available across the developing world. Science should be a fundamental part of development policy. Open source bioscience may be one of the most important catalysts for leapfrogging we have.

Open Biotech has now had its first big breakthrough. Researchers at Cambia, a life sciences institute in Australia, have developed TransBacter, an open source alternative to the Monsanto-patented process for transferring new genes to plants. Publishing in this week's Nature, they detail (PDF) how they developed the process and -- more importantly -- how others can get free (as in "libre") access to it. This work is part of the Biological Innovation for Open Society (BIOS) initiative, which seeks to build a broad toolkit of open source biotechnologies, and is already available as a project in the BioForge open source biotech forum.

In contrast to the complex licensing landscape for Agrobacterium [Monstanto-patented] methodology, this alternative technology is available to the international community in a ‘protected technology commons’ optimized and improved as a BioForge project (http://www.bioforge.net), and accessible under a BIOS (Biological Innovation for Open Society, http://www.bios.net) licence. These open-source-modelled licences are characterized by having no commercial restrictions other than covenants for sharing of improvements, relevant safety information and regulatory data and for preserving the opportunity for others to freely improve and use the technology.

Reports on the development at Wired News, the New York Times and the BBC summarize the science acceptably well, and are worth reading.

To be clear, this is a technique enabling broader research into genetically-modified organisms. GMOs have a bad reputation in the environmental community, in large part due to the behavior of the large biotech companies which own many of the patents. Lack of transparency, monopolist bullying and poor testing are just some of what has resulted from the dominance of proprietary bioscience. Genetic modification is not intrinsically problematic, and can have positive results. Detailed evaluation before distribution, broad transparency of process, and better accountability would go a long way towards ensuring that biotechnology is used wisely. Open source biotech is an important step in that direction.

Openness also makes us better able to respond to problems when they occur. As I wrote in "Open the Future," for the last issue of Whole Earth Review:

...if the dangerous uses are "knowledge-enabled," so too are the defenses. Opening the books on emerging technologies, making the information about how they work widely available and easily accessible, in turn creates the possibility of a global defense against accidents or the inevitable depredations of a few. Openness speaks to our long traditions of democracy, free expression, and the scientific method, even as it harnesses one of the newest and best forces in our culture: the power of networks and the distributed-collaboration tools they evolve.

...with an open approach, you get millions of people who know how dangerous technologies work and are committed to helping to detect, defend and respond. That these are "knowledge-enabled" technologies means that knowledge also enables their control; knowledge, in turn, grows faster as it becomes more widespread.

Whether you're an opponent of genetic modification of organisms or a precautionary supporter, you should welcome the advent of open source bioscience.

Comments (1)


The funny thing about Open Source is that it creates an environment for private enterprise to flourish, but also makes niche products more expensive.

Consider software. There's an open source OS, Office suite, browser, chat program, and a few other apps that have lots of demand, and therefore receive lots of attention and time by programmers. This is only possible however because some for-profit interests find it in their best interest to make a sustained, long term push for them. IBM and Intel have full-time employees improving Linux because it helps them sell servers. Red Hat has people working on it so they can sell their consulting services.

If there's no profit motive to continuously develop biotech, it just won't get developed - not long term. People will tinker with it occasionally, as the mood strikes, but there won't be the capital intensive, long-term committment to it that a corporation can bring to bear.

There have been many examples of good ideas that never got capitalized because no one had clear intellectual property rights to them. I would hate to see the same happen to some improved biotech.


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