Sunday, October 9, 2016

DNA In The Copyright Office

In an article entitled, "Are Engineered Genetic Sequences Copyrightable?: The U.S. Copyright Office Addresses a Matter of First Impression", Chris Holman (who led the effort and was the prime mover of the article), Claes Gustafsson (whose impressive biotechnology company, DNA2.0, designed the DNA sequence submitted to the Copyright Office for registration), and I describe how the United States Copyright Office handled an attempt to register copyright in a synthetic DNA sequence.  Here is the abstract:
In spite of the compelling logic that would support extending copyright to engineered DNA sequences, copyright protection for genetic code has not been legally recognized in the US, or as far as we know anywhere. The Copyright Act is silent on the point, the courts do not appear to have ever addressed the question, and the Copyright Office has taken the position that an engineered genetic sequence is not copyrightable subject matter. In an attempt to advance the conversation, we submitted an engineered DNA sequence to the Copyright Office for registration, and then appealed the Office’s decision refusing to register engineered genetic sequences. This article reports the outcome of our experiment, and provides as supplementary material the actual letter we submitted to the Copyright Office appealing its initial decision not to register genetic sequences (the “Appeal”), along with the Copyright Office’s letter denying our appeal (the “Denial), which provides a detailed explanation of the Office’s position regarding the copyrightability of engineered DNA. The bulk of the article is devoted to refuting the legal and policy justifications set forth by the Office in its Denial.
Thank you very much to Chris and Claes for including me in this fascinating effort to probe the limits of copyrightable subject matter.  This legal adventure will continue.

Lexvivo Returns

My dear friend, the marvelous Bill Tomlinson, Professor of Informatics at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California Irvine, has revived Lexvivo from internet purgatory.  Why the website went down remains a mystery, but its resurrection is due to computer maven Bill's internet mojo.  Thank you very much, Bill!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Governing Biotechnology

As noted last year by Lexvivo ("Recoordinated Framework", July 2, 2015), the United States federal government has been considering how to update its policy on biotechnology regulation.  On September 16, 2016, the White House released a draft revision of the "Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology" (commonly known as the "Coordinated Framework").  (Thank you to the brilliant Brian Mannix for alerting me about the draft's release.)  The original policy, in force since June 26, 1986, can be found here.  The draft new policy, entitled "Modernizing the Regulatory System for Biotechnology Products: An Update to the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology", can be found here.  The White House described its reformulated biotechnology regulatory policy as follows:
[It] sets forth a vision for ensuring that the Federal regulatory system is equipped to assess efficiently the risks, if any, associated with future products of biotechnology while supporting innovation, protecting health and the environment, maintaining public confidence in the regulatory process, increasing transparency and predictability, and reducing unnecessary costs and burdens. In the [draft new policy], the Federal agencies demonstrate their sustained commitment to ensure the safety of future products of biotechnology, increase public confidence in the regulatory system, and prevent unnecessary barriers to future innovation and competitiveness.
Biotechnology has evolved rapidly and radically over the past three decades, so a comprehensive review of the policies that oversees its regulation would seem overdue, especially in light of signal innovations like de novo gene synthesis and in toto genome editing.  Let's hope that this proposed recoordination of policy on that most complex of technologies avoids tripping over its own feet.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

2016 Freeman Prize

Sampsa Hyysalo, Torben Elgaard Jensen, and Nelly Oudshoorn just let us know that the book they edited, entitled New Production of Users - Changing Innovation Collectives and Involvement Strategies (Routledge), has received the 2016 Freeman Prize, which is awarded "for a publication which is a significant collective contribution to the interaction of science and technology studies with the study of innovation" by the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology ("EASST").  This award honors "Professor Chris Freeman, renowned expert on the social and economic consequences of developments in science and technology".  Eric von Hippel and I were invited to contribute a chapter, which we coauthored and named "Protecting the Right to Innovate:  Our Innovation "Wetlands"".

Thank you very much to Sampsa, Torben, and Nelly for their wonderful leadership in producing this book!  They deserve the lion's share of the congratulations for winning the Freeman Prize.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Triumphantly Hip

When I was an undergraduate at Queen's University, The Tragically Hip were our favourite band at Alfie's.  They were awesome then;  they are awesome now.  However, a sad chapter in their story began on May 24, 2016, when The Hip announced that lead singer Gord Downie had been diagnosed with incurable glioblastoma.  I, along with a third of Canadians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, attended, watched, or listened to what may have been The Hip's final concert on August 20, 2016.  Although the entire event is not currently available online, here is the final song of their last encore.  Thank you, Gord, for a lifetime of transcendent Canadian musical poetry.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Zoom Into OneZoom

I would like to thank Matt Ridley for directing me to OneZoom, a wonderful interactive phylogeny of life.  On OneZoom, one can begin at any branch or leaf on Charles Darwin's metaphorical Tree of Life, then increase or decrease the desired level of phylogenetic detail by simple mouse-click or finger-tap.

A 2012 PLOS Biology article by J. Rosindell and L.J. Harmon, entitled OneZoom: A Fractal Explorer for the Tree of Life, explains the concept behind this cool and addictive new evolutionary tool.

With OneZoom, one may explore any part of the tree of life, from an individual organism to a entire clade.  I recommend choosing your favourite lifeform as a starting point, then seeing where evolution leads you.  To adapt Ira and George Gershwin's cryptichthyic 1937 song Slap that Bass,
Click that bass
Click away your trouble
Learn to zoom zoom zoom
Click that bass
But beware:  once you dive into OneZoom, you may find it difficult to stop exploring biodiversity.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Cry Wolf, Not Wolves

An analysis of the entire genomes of wolves and coyotes (Canis latrans) has come to an unexpected conclusion:  there is a single species of North American wolf.  Previously, some biologists, including at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service ("FWS"), which is responsible for implementing the Endangered Species Act ("ESA"), proposed the existence of three species:  the Gray Wolf (Canis lupus), Red Wolf (Canis rufus), and Eastern (or Great Lakes region) Wolf (Canis lycaon).  In their article, Whole-genome sequence analysis shows that two endemic species of North American wolf are admixtures of the coyote and gray wolf, published on July 27, 2016, in Science Advances, Bridgett M. von Holdt and her colleagues instead conclude that:
Consistent with the above results, Great Lakes region wolves and red wolves are admixed populations composed of various proportions of gray wolf and coyote ancestry. The red wolf may have captured genomic elements that were unique to gray wolves and coyotes of the American South. In contrast, the Great Lakes region wolves largely sample lineages of gray wolves and coyotes that have descendants in the extant population, which may include a distinct gray wolf ecotype. We find little evidence of distinct genomic elements in either red or Great Lakes region wolves that would support separate evolutionary legacies.  (References omitted.)
This study has important implications for how the FWS protects various admixed populations of wild canids under the ESA.  Coywolves and woyotes warrant protection despite their admixed genomes, in part because, as keystone predators, they help regulate vital trophic cascades in the ecosystems they inhabit.  However, their newly-uncertain taxonomic status may undermine strong legal protections they would otherwise receive as "species".  Two lessons to draw from these genomic revelations are that (1) the ESA and its interpretation need to continue grappling with rapid progress in genetics and (2) the biologically-wobbly concept of "species" gets riper for replacement with each passing day.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Pigou Breakthrough

Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, has announced that his Liberal government will adopt a nationwide price on carbon emissions.  Employing Pigouvian taxes (or subsidies) to internalize putative externalities, as University of Cambridge economist Arthur Cecil Pigou described in The Economics of Welfare, has long been suggested as a cost-effective means to reduce the generation and release of greenhouse gases. Although market-based methods combating climate change have traditionally been anathema to many environmental organizations, the often icy opposition to Pigouvian taxation, or, alternatively, cap-and-trade approaches, seems rapidly to be melting.  Although University of Chicago economist, and Pigou critic, Ronald Harry Coase would likely not approve, Canada has announced it will adopt a Pigouvian approach to curb its carbon emissions, either by individual provinces and territories, or, failing that, through a national policy.  No announcements have yet been made about the taxation of political hot air.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Well May She Rule

Brand new Prime Minister Theresa May delivered a remarkable speech upon assuming office on June 13, 2016.  Notable among the topics she addressed were unity and inequality, about which she said the following:
[W]e believe in a union not just between the nations of the United Kingdom but between all of our citizens - every one of us - whoever we are and wherever we’re from.
That means fighting against the burning injustice that if you’re born poor you will die on average nine years earlier than others. 
If you’re black you are treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. 
If you’re a white working-class boy you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university. 
If you’re at a state school you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. 
If you’re a woman you will earn less than a man. 
If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand. 
If you’re young you will find it harder than ever before to own your own home. If you’re from an ordinary working-class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise.
Although it is much more difficult to effect real social change than simply to utter stirring words, May established a reputation as Home Secretary for setting and accomplishing measurable goals.  May she succeed!