Craig Venter, leader of the private effort to sequence the human genome, has filed for a patent on a synthetic bacterium. By knocking out each of Mycobacterium’s 470 genes, Venter and his team have elucidated a minimal set of genes that could, in theory, be synthesized on a stretch of DNA and inserted into a membrane containing a set of enzymes necessary for replication and metabolism.
It will be interesting to watch how this case plays out. The supreme court essentially enabled the growth of the biotechnology industry in 1984 when they ruled that genetically modified bacteria were patentable. We’ll see how the patent office (and ensuing lawsuits) treat synthetic life.
For more background detail, see this excellent article at the Economist.