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IPBio Newsletter #13. September 2016

A monthly update of intellectual property and bioscience news and analyses curated by the IPBio Network -


  1. I'll let you in on a secret. I have a system for finding images for the newsletter and it's a bit convoluted. I use the Flickr creative commons search engine and set the preferences to 'no known copyright restrictions' while searching for terms like 'biotechnology' or 'DNA'. This explains the blurry images of electrophoresis bands and obscure phenotype diagrams I've used in past months. These are the pictorial ephemera of 20th century genetics.
  2. This month's picture is an absolute stumbled-upon doozy. In many ways, it's a fairly standard mid-century photo of science. Two blokes consider a gadget. (Interestingly both of them have turned their backs on the stick and ball model of DNA in the corner). The image comes from the Bell Telephone Magazine, it's part of an article called, 'Bell Labs Studies DNA Molecule' from 1966. The article begins by pointing up the informational nature of DNA: 'The efficiency and accuracy with which vast amounts of information are stored in, read out of and copied by DNA molecules are unmatched and make the most sophisticated computers appear like the crudest toys'. What were Bell up to? Was this some kind of forerunner to the current hype surrounding bio-computing? Well, no. 'This research provides a molecular model for early stages of radiation damage in DNA'. The next article in the magazine is about Bell's research with NORAD/ADC, if you were wondering where that radiation might be coming from.
  3. I'm not recommending this as a new methodological front in the history of genetics but i hope it has tickled everyone's interest as much as it did mine, about the 'nature' of DNA, its place in the military-industrial complex and the power of information.
  4. New Publications

  5. Two new publications from network participants this month. One from Sabina Leonelli on open science and one from myself (blushes) in the new 'Sleggett' volume on scientific governance.
  6. And two big reports, the first from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics about genome editing and another from the UNSG on access to medicines.
  7. Lastly, if you've not seen it, here's an interview with Shelia Jasanoff on her new volume The Ethics of Invention.
  8. Plant Breeding

  9. It's all happening in the world of plant breeding at the moment. The first item here is absolutely typical of a number of articles on the webs at the moment. 'Something is happening', in this case the development of new gene editing techniques (see the Nuffield Report above), and we as a society will have to decide how to respond (see the 'Open Questions' at the end of the article).
  10. But CRISPR isn't the only thing that's happening at the moment. I suspect that the far more fundamental changes occurring in 2016 are to do with access. Who should be breeding plants and how? The first of these stories relates to the UK's John Innes Centre, which has just released a series of open protocols for wheat research. The message is clearly that access should broadened. Cognate developments at DEFRA (the UK Government's Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs N.B. this is not a reference to the Archers) around their open data policy are similarly about 'opening up'. One question is, where does this leave the publicly-funded seed banks? It's fantastic news that ICARDA has been re-located but it's not clear exactly how these CGIAR legacy outfits (with all their geopolitical historical baggage) fit into that story of access. BTW Jack Kloppenburg's Open Source Seed outfit are now offering access to around 287 varieties, although they aren't all open-open.
  11. If some farmers will always want to buy seed (and save themselves the bother of collecting or breeding seed from their own crops) then what's wrong with commercial outfits offering this service? The Guardian has gotten right into the dangers of agro-industrial concentration in the last few weeks and there's a sampling of their coverage below, along with some details on the ChemChina - Syngenta buy out. I've also added a couple of stories on what these mergers might mean for small-scale farmers.