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[ox-en] The Triumph of the Commons: Can Open Source Revolutionise Biotech?

Folks in biology/political ecology are moving fast in terms of adopting oss approaches to bio-research, CAMBIA and bioforge are definitely worth following. Downside: the idea of a biological kernel may, somewhat problematically, revive old gene-as-code analogies from the early days of cybernetics, and actually support a throwback in terms of conceptual idioms (nature-cultures, biomedia and all that), sz

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: [bioplan] The Triumph of the Commons: Can Open Source Revolutionise Biotech?
Date: Fri, 18 Feb 2005 15:50:49 [PHONE NUMBER REMOVED]
From: David Duthie <David.Duthie>
To: bioplan


Whilst the ABS Expert Working Group struggles to find agreement on how to move forward with an International Regime, a group of Australia-based
researchers has dropped a potential bombshell on intellectual property
rights and biotechnology. Not only have they found an alternative mechanism for gene transfer into plants, they have made the basic technology available through an open source licence, which may greatly alter the way that agricultural biotechnology is adapted to the so-called "orphan" crops with markets too small to interest the multinationals. Below, I am posting two articles covering the research. The original (technical) paper is in Nature Magazine (see the link in the article below). Interesting reading, even if you do not normally follow biotechnology/biosafety issues.

Best wishes

David Duthie
UNEP/GEF Biodiversity Enabling Activities
E-mail:  david.duthie @

The Triumph of the Commons: Can Open Source Revolutionise Biotech?

- The Economist,Feb 10,2005

The computing industry has been transformed by open-source software,
threatening business models while creating lucrative opportunities for some firms. Might the same happen in biotechnology? In a paper published in NATURE (see below) on February 10th, a group of researchers describe a way to transfer genes into plants that bypasses the now most commonly used technique, agrobacterium transformation, which is protected by hundreds of patents. The new process may provide an alternative method of modifying certain types of crops in order to, say, improve harvests. But what makes the invention particularly notable is that the authors, affiliated with CAMBIA, a non-profit biotech research group in Australia, have made the procedure free for use under a novel "open-source" licence.

[DD: WIM BROOTHAERTS, w. et al (2005) Gene transfer to plants by diverse species of bacteria. Nature 433, 629 - 633 (10 February 2005); doi:10.1038/nature03309.
 (subscription required)]

This licence allows people to commercialise products based on the
procedure. All that is required is that improvements to the technique
itself be shared, to the benefit of all users. This should make it easier for companies and researchers in poor countries to use agricultural gene-transfer technology, which today's patent-licensing approach impedes.

"The idea is to try to craft a system so that we have a different way to do business," says Richard Jefferson, the head of CAMBIA and a co-author of the paper. "This is a demonstration of a way forward for an innovation business model," he says, which could help unleash creativity in poorer countries. This week, the group also unveiled a website, to help biotech researchers to collaborate, much as is a nexus for open-source software development.

Although open-source approaches have already been used in biotech-related computing (called bioinformatics) and database sharing, CAMBIA's licence represents an actual technique being provided in an open-source form. It is part of a broader push towards open practices in the life sciences. For example, Science Commons, an offshoot of Creative Commons (which provides less restrictive copyright licences to authors), is preparing to develop open licences later this year.

CAMBIA's technique, and its open-source licence, "is a potentially huge
deal for people working in minor crops, on humanitarian projects, and even for smaller companies working with the major crops," says Lisa Lorenzen of Iowa State University. Calestous Juma of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government believes the approach is viable because "you have the incentive to invent, but you also have the raw materials--information--with which to invent."

The dominant patent holder in agrobacterium transformation, the most
widely-used means of plant gene-transfer, is Monsanto, a big agricultural firm. The firm says that, although it is not very familiar with open-source approaches in the life sciences, the technology seems to complement, not threaten, its business model.

In information technology, some firms, including mighty Microsoft, are
severely threatened by open source. Yet other firms, including big ones
such as IBM, have evolved business models to embrace open source, which
contributes greatly to their revenues. The question is, can open-source
biotech also find its way into drug development, where the costs are higher and potential profits greater?

Pedants will note that CAMBIA's approach is not pure open source, since the group relied on grants from foundations to develop the technology rather than on volunteers. Moreover, the licence itself is not completely unique, in that royalty-free, non-exclusive technology agreements that stipulate sharing improvements have existed before. But these are quibbles. The open-source-like approach may not revolutionise the biotech industry, but it is a notable step in a new direction.


Genetically Modified IP Launched - Kristen Philipkoski, Wired, Feb. 09, 2005,1286,66545,00.html

A paper appearing in this week's edition of Nature is antiseptically
entitled: "Gene transfer to plants by diverse species of bacteria." But the information that lies within may herald a revolution in biology.

The paper describes two new technologies: TransBacter, a method for
transferring genes to plants, and GUSPlus, a method of visualizing where
the genes are and what they do. Behind the research, which was funded by
the Rockefeller Foundation, is a team of scientists who want to provide the technologies as a "kernel," modeled on the Linux movement, as the beginning of perhaps the first practical offering in open-source biology.

Researchers who want to develop technologies based on this kernel can use it as they wish if they agree to a flexible license issued by Biological Innovation for Open Society, or BIOS. The initiative is being spearheaded by Richard Jefferson, also founder of Cambia, an agricultural life science institute in Canberra, Australia.

"My own hope is that seriously disadvantaged people who have a sense of
disenfranchisement and neglect can take great heart from our work, and
ultimately can find means to dig out of poverty and despair," Jefferson
said. "There are millions of creative people who must be crushed to find
they have no means to leverage their commitment into advancing their
well-being and quality of life."

But how will poor farmers benefit from a technology published in a fancy
science journal like Nature? Jefferson calls it "representational

In other words, local entrepreneurs, universities and other institutions in impoverished locales need to get on board with BIOS for Jefferson's
open-source biology plan to work. He hopes the initiative will help new
enterprises, as well as existing nonprofit organizations charged with
improving conditions in poor nations, to take advantage of the BIOS

"(Institutions in the public sector) need to be much more effective, and
the BIOS initiative will (help them) do that," Jefferson said. "Ultimately, as broadband expands, more and more decentralized participation can be envisioned."

For the vision to become reality, BIOS plans to reach out to these entities with its BioForge website, which it launched Wednesday. Scientists can deposit and obtain scientific information on the site.

The open-source biology movement has been bubbling to the surface for
years, and enthusiasts are heartened by the first technologies finally
becoming available.

"This is important, fundamental agricultural technology moving into the
commons," said John Wilbanks, executive director of Science Commons, a
group working to make it easier, and legal, to share scientific data. "This is the type of tool that, in increasing numbers, is being patented. To use the operating system metaphor, this is Print-F for plant genomics. Imagine trying to build any piece of software if the print function required a patent license."

The biotech industry is officially not opposed to open-source biology
projects, and is interested in studying them further, said Lisa Dry, a
spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization. Dry also pointed out that infrastructure, not patent licenses, are often the impediment for implementing new technologies in developing countries.

"The judicial system, the culture, the regulatory regime ... there are many hurdles to overcome before you even get to the question of, 'Is
intellectual property an issue here?'" Dry said.

Jefferson is interested in seeing small-time farmers, rather than big
companies, benefit from his efforts. And it seems logical that agricultural biotech companies like Dow Chemical and Monsanto, whose business plans are centered on patent protection for genetically modified plants, would not welcome the concept of open-source technology relating to genetically modified crops. Monsanto has brought several lawsuits against farmers for using their technology without a license. (A Monsanto representative referred inquiries for this story to BIOS.)

But Jefferson says he has had "fairly productive" conversations with
agri-biotech executives, and he believes there is a way they can actually make money by adopting the BIOS approach, at least for developing some technologies.

"Even large companies, if they embrace a very different business model, can make serious money -- probably more than current earnings -- by decreasing costs of accessing technology, litigation and developing early-stage innovation," Jefferson said.

The companies will likely need to see a clear synergy in order to invest, said Stephen Maurer, an attorney and lecturer with the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, who proposed an open-source approach for developing tropical disease drugs in a paper published in the December issue of the Public Library of Science.

[DD:  see Maurer SM, Rai A, Sali A (2004) Finding Cures for Tropical
Diseases: Is Open Source an Answer? PLoS Med 1(3): e56 DOI:
10.1371/journal.pmed.0010056 . ...Address:, linked via:

"IBM funds open-source software," Maurer said. "Why? Because IBM sells
hardware. You have to tell the same story about why people out in the world would invest in research to develop this kernel."
Organization: projekt

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