In 1995 Craig Venter and his colleagues at the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) became the first to sequence all the A, G, C and T nucleotides in the genome of a free-living organism--the bacterium Hemophilus influenzae, which causes ear and respiratory infections. Human Genome Sciences (HGS), a major biotechnology firm with which TIGR was affiliated at the time, applied for a patent not just on the sequence of nucleotides in the DNA itself but on any "computer-readable medium having recorded thereon the nucleotide sequence."
In essence, the application asked for a patent on the exclusive use of the computer code representing the germ's genetic code. The patent, which is still pending in the U.S. and elsewhere, represents a "fundamental departure" from previous practice, wrote biotechnology law scholar Rebecca Eisenberg last year in the Emory Law Journal: "By claiming exclusionary rights in the sequence information itself, if stored in a computer-readable medium, HGS seeks patent rights that would be infringed by information storage, retrieval and analysis rather than simply by making, using or selling DNA molecules."
This article was originally published with the title Code of the Code.