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Since the advent of genetic engineering, a lot of weird questions have cropped up, particularly with regard to what information a company can patent. Individual genes, as they are discovered, are now immediately patented and can be controlled by the company that owns the patent.

Do those gene patents encourage science by providing a monetary incentive for researchers? Or do they discourage science by creating artificial barriers to the use and study of genes by the companies that don't hold the patents.

Guest host Michael Aranda discusses.

[Intro music plays]

Welcome to SciShow News. I'm Michael Aranda in for Hank Green.

 40% of your genes

And today we are going to be talking about genes. I've got them, you've got them, their natural. Someone asked whether they belong in the public domain, I think my answer would be yes. But, on Monday the US Supreme Court began hearing a weird case that raises a weirder question: Can someone own your genes?

The fact is that more than 4,000 of your genes, over 40% of the human genome have already been patented. Just as other companies patent nifty new inventions and secret formulas for soft drinks, private research firms have been patenting genes for years. But is this the best interest of science? About 150,000 geneticists, pathologists, and laboratory professionals say "Not so much."

Among those who joined in this weeks legal battle, the American Medical Association, the American Society of Human Genetics, and even James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA's double helix structure. They argue that gene patents tie the hands of genetic researchers, but some others say that if companies can't make money from genetic research, there won't be any incentive to do it. 


The case in front of the Supreme Court right now has to do with two of your genes called BRCA 1 & 2, which are shared by all humans. In the 1990s a biotech company called Myriad found that certain mutations on the genes predisposed their carriers to breast and ovarian cancer. The company patented the genes and since then has gathered lots of data and developed tests that identify some of the dangerous mutations.

 Gene Patent Problems

But, because of the patents, Myriad basically has a monopoly on anything that has to do with the genes. So, if you think you have one of the mutations and you want to find out, your only choice, at least in the US, is to dish out about $3,000 to the company, and your doctor can't give you advice because nobody knows much about the genes except Myriad, which reportedly isn't sharing it's data.

All of this got some organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Patent Foundation pretty fired up in defense of patients. So, in 2009, they sued. Obviously we don't want to live in a world where scientist get sued all the time for doing science, but do gene patents actually make it harder for scientist to do their jobs?

Since 1998, patent holders have sued scientists doing basic research on diseases from Alzhiemer's to Autism. In 2010, the Us Department in Health and Human Services found that patent holders have prevented doctors and labs from offering test for diseases like, Lukemia, Huntington's Disease, and a heart condition called Long QT Syndrome.

Further back in 2001, 49% of members of the American Society of Human Genetics said that gene patents had limited their research. And, in a 2003 survey, 53% of genetics labs reported that they had given up on research because of gene patents. 

 Gene Patent Benefits

For their part, Myriad and industry groups like the Biotechnology Industry Organization say that gene patents encourage science. Basically, they are new patents that give incentive to invest into genetic research. Mark Capone, President of Myriad labs, says that gene patents have made the BRCA genes two of the best understood human genes. Siting 18,000 scientist who have published 10,000 papers through the company.

 What Do You Think?

But these are your genes we're talking about, so what do you think? What's best for science? Collaboration and sharing, or good old fashioned monetarian incentive.

Let us know what you think about this in the comment section below. Also, if you have any question or ideas we're on Facebook and Twitter and if you want to keep up to date on all of the latest breaking science news, you can go to and subscribe.