Friday, September 17, 2010

Genome Patents Are from Venus, Genome Sharing Is from Mars: The Cocoa Genome Published, not Patented

In the UK, The Independent reports an interesting story about discovery the details of the cocoa genome, a major scientific project that could help cocoa producers worldwide become much more productive in raising this sensitive crop. What I found interesting was the decision by the corporation behind the work, Mars, Inc., to not seek patents based on the work but rather to publish their discovery so that everyone, even competitors, might benefit from the work. Of course, they hope to benefit by having more abundant and higher quality cocoa as a raw material, but I'm still delighted with the decision. Genome patents are tempting and have a role (with over 3 million genome-related patents having been filed in the US, it must be a pretty big role), but are highly controversial and sometimes rather questionable. It's a complex issue to be debated another time. For now, let's just savor the decision by Mars and look forward to major advances in cocoa agriculture.

Here's an excerpt from The Independent:
Scientists have sequenced the genetic code of the cocoa tree, which they say could triple the yield of the disease-prone crop and transform the lives of millions of poor farmers in Africa and around the developing world who rely on it for their livelihood.

The US chocolate firm Mars, working with the computer firm IBM and the US Department of Agriculture, took two years and two months to unlock the genetic code of the tree, Theobroma cacao ("food of the gods").

Instead of patenting the genome, they have placed it online for anyone to use for free. They say that its discovery will allow breeders who use traditional methods to grow hardier, more productive and disease-resistant trees
See also The Cacao Genome Database where Mars and others have published the results of their sequencing of the cacao genome. Best enjoyed while sipping hot chocolate. You'll need a big cup.

Other reading on related topics: