The Coalition Against Biopiracy has announced their winners for the 2006 Captain Hook Awards for Biopiracy, and they’re a hoot. We already knew that Darwin was a pirate, but now we learn that so are Craig Venter and Google. What are their crimes? Venter is accused of being the “Greediest Biopirate”, and Google is accused of being the “Biggest Threat to Genetic Privacy”. I have some more details on these charges below the fold, in addition to showing why the Coalition Against Biopiracy needs to walk the plank.
Venter is accused of:
“undertaking, with flagrant disregard for national sovereignty over biodiversity, a US-funded global biopiracy expedition on his yacht, Sorcerer II, to collect and sequence microbial diversity from the world’s oceans and soils. The genetic material will play a role in his most ambitious project to date: building an entirely new artificial organism.”
Venter is sailing around the world scooping up water from the oceans. He and his collaborators are then sequencing DNA from whatever micro-organisms they happen to scoop up. They are NOT using those sequences to build an artificial organism. Is this biopiracy? The Coalition claims, “Biopiracy refers to the monopolization (usually through intellectual property) of genetic resources and traditional knowledge or culture taken from peoples or farming communities that developed and nurtured those resources.” I don’t see how you can interpret what Venter is doing as taking things from any peoples. He’s not monopolizing intellectual property, as he will make all of the sequences freely available online. I see this as a great contribution to biology, not an act of piracy.
Venter is also accused, along with Google, of threatening genetic privacy by creating a database of human DNA sequences. Venter has been using Google’s computing powers to aid in creating a database of genetic information, with data on function and evolutionary relationships. This service, I imagine, will be akin to the NCBI Entrez database. Centrally located information is a boon to all researchers in the life sciences, including those doing both pure and applied research on human diseases. Additionally, many people use these resources to study organisms that have suffered the negative consequences of interactions with industrialized nations. I’d say that a biological database is antagonistic to the idea of biopiracy. The details of the collaboration are real hush-hush, but that does not stop the Coalition from speculating that they will be creating a database of sequences from 6 billion humans. Forget about the ethical problems with publishing such a database online. What about the logistical nightmare of collecting all of that data? It’s totally not worth it, even for Big Brother.
Say what you will about Venter, his intentions are far from evil. Maybe he’s a little bit megalomaniacal, and his human genome sequencing project may have been bullshit, but he has pushed the envelope when it comes to high throughput sequencing. He was a big reason that shotgun sequencing caught on, and he greatly encouraged the development of new sequencing technology. He may sail the high seas, but he ain’t no pirate.