genetic patents


get to know me: [ two / ∞ ] favourite tv shows || orphan black

❝ A 36 base pair variation in identical samples? Didn’t make sense. But then you guys started asking about genetic patents, so I was like, “Encoded marker tags”. Duh. Anyway, uh, identical genomes with markers and embedded patents? Had to be clones. So… can I see one? 

anonymous asked:

I was wondering if you would be inclined to either make more posts on the GMO topic or even just post some resources. I feel like I don't know enough about the topic and would like to be better informed. Thanks.

I suggest that you start with this really lovely article from Slate on the GMO ‘controversy’:

The Misleading War on GMOs: The Food is Safe. The Rhetoric is Dangerous.

The blunt truth is that GM plants are capable of doing so much good. They can reduce the use of pesticides, they can have higher nutrition, they can cost less to farm, and they can even be safer for the environment around them. They’re not by any means a miracle cure for any problem, but they can certainly help.

Naturally, however, there are some valid concerns with this new technology, as with any technology. The main concern lies not with pesticide resistance, as is commonly misreported, but with herbicide resistance. GM crops can reduce pesticide use by producing small amounts of insecticide within the plant itself, a much more effective tactic than spraying pesticide indiscriminately. However, since herbicides kill plants, creating crops with higher herbicide resistances means that farmers are free to spray herbicides much more liberally, which in turn creates evolutionary pressure to evolve more herbicide resistance in weeds.

There is also the possibility that herbicide-resistant GM crops may cross-pollinate with related native weeds, creating ‘superweeds.’ In countries like the US where our most common crops have few close wild relatives, the danger is low, but it is much higher in many developing countries. 

But herbicide resistance isn’t exactly limited to GM crops- it’s a problem with ANY crop that has herbicide sprayed on it. And the solution for both GM and non-GM crops is simple: rotate what herbicides you use, instead of relying on just one, so weeds can’t keep up.

The same goes with nearly any legitimate issue you could think of for GM crops: unmodified crops have the same problems. People tend to think of genetic modification like magic, like slapping wings on a pig and inviting the wrath of some environmental god. But the things we’re trying to do with GMOs are literally the same things we’ve been trying to do with traditional breeding and crop-growing methods for millennia. Pesticides, herbicides, higher nutrition, higher yields, cross-pollination with native plants- none of these issues are new. Breed a herbicide-resistant tomato, or insert the gene manually. Spray crops with insecticide, or manufacture it directly in the plant. We’re reaching for the same end goals- the question is which method is cheaper, faster, and safer for humans and the environment alike. In many cases- though not all- the research points to GMOs.

As for the concerns about gene patenting and particularly the efforts of Monsanto, the case is again murkier and more complicated than documentaries like Food, Inc. will lead you to believe. For example, the farmer in the most famous case- Monsanto Canada Inc v Schmeiser- was not, as is commonly reported, merely trying to reuse seeds that had gotten accidentally cross-pollinated by Monsanto-patented crops from other fields. Over 90 percent of his ‘replanted’ crop was found to contain the patented gene, a figure much too high for there to have been simple cross-pollination. So Monsanto was likely correct when they accused him of trying to grow their crop without paying for the patent. Indeed, there aren’t any cases that Monsanto has filed against farmers based solely on cross-contamination.

As with the health and environmental issues, the ethical and corporate issues of GM crops are somewhat mirrored in their traditionally grown counterparts. If a farmer breeds a herbicide-resistant strain of weeds, does he own the patent to that organism? (According to US law, yes.) What if a scientist working for a company manufactures one with genetic technology?

In the case of Monsanto v Schmeiser, the Canadian government decided that while an entire plant can’t be patented, the technology that inserts the gene into the plant’s cells can be, and therefore manufacturing the genes by regrowing the crops is patent infringement. Conversely, United States laws now state that naturally-occurring gene sequences cannot be patented, so if it’s a gene already found in a plant or animal and used by a biotechnology company, no patent. This covers the vast majority of all genes used in GM organisms.

So in the US, people can own both traditionally-grown and GM plant strains, and can file lawsuits if someone regrows the strain without their permission. But Monsanto can’t own the genes themselves that it places in their products. Again, the issue of whether or not you can patent a living organism is not unique to GM crops.

Tl;dr: Commonly cited ‘problems’ with GM crops are often heavily misrepresented, and even when they aren’t, they’re usually not unique to crops where genes were mechanically inserted rather than bred.

Further reading:

There’s nothing dangerous or bad about the principle of GM foods and crops. (Contains links to a host of different scientific studies on the matter.)

Top Five Myths of Genetically Modified Seeds, Busted (NPR)

How To Genetically Modify a Seed, Step by Step (Popular Science)

The Truth About Genetically Modified Food (Scientific American)

A Hard Look at 3 Myths about Genetically Modified Crops (Scientific American)

Does genetically modified corn cause cancer? A flawed study fails to convince (Forbes)

Genetically modified foods, cancer, and diet: myths and reality (Current Oncology)

The Croods Theory

The 2013 Dreamworks animated film titled “The Croods” recently became available on Netflix. With no financial risk involved, I thought I’d give it a try.

This film confused me greatly. Every scene seemed to create more questions, none of which were given a clear resolution in the end:

  • Where did all these bizarre hybrid organisms come from?
  • Why were the Croods themselves so improbably unintelligent?

Several weeks after seeing the film, it clicked. It suddenly all make sense:

The Croods takes place in the distant future, long after the genetic apocalypse.

Let me explain. In today’s world, the ability to alter genomes is becoming more and more accessible and affordable. Individuals, hobbyists, even children, have access to technologies that were unthinkable just a decade earlier. The movement has become common enough that that it even has a name: biohacking. This is where the story of the Croods begins. Here and now.

Imagine a future where genetic biohacking is ubiquitous. The human race has been splicing genomes for centuries. It started as a means to provide food and fight disease for an ever growing population, but eventually evolved into something else.

Soon tinkerers began creating custom house pets. It started out with seemingly harmless things, like rabbit-sized rodent/elephant hybrids, and tree like terrestrial corals for garden landscaping:

Eventually, this grassroots movement became commercialized. More and more elaborate hybrids were created by genetic artisans, who in turn sold their genetic patents to massive corporations looking to take advantage of the latest trends in custom pets and zoological theme parks:

This ultimately culminated in the creation of avian/mammalian carnivore megafauna as status symbols for the extremely wealthy:

As trends in hybrid species shifted, their caretakers lost interest in the older breeds. Many of these animals were released into the wild, resulting in ever expanding feral populations. With no natural predators, these populations displaced most of the native species, and eventually became naturalized.

Meanwhile, the genetic revolution had also resulted in darker industries. Looking for cheap labor, natural resource harvesting corporations began exporting their operations to countries with lax genetic regulation. Here, away from the prying eyes of world governments, they were able to develop a new strain of human:

Their large and muscular bodies were well suited to hauling heavy industrial equipment. Their dimwitted nature meant they were easily contained, and their instinctual fear of anything new prevented any deviation from the oppressive status quo set forth by the corporation.

The genetic revolution wasn’t without it’s detractors however. Religious fringe groups had long viewed genetic tampering as an affront to god. In their eyes, tampering with genetic code was tampering with the divine plan of god himself.

Eventually, terrorist groups formed. These extremist sects began targeting government facilities dealing with genetic research. Rather hypocritically, they attacked such facilities with the very weaponized viruses they stole in their raids, apparently attempting to prove a point about the dangers of genetic modification.

Unfortunately, these viruses were not contained to the sites of terrorist attacks. The infection spread globally, killing over 14 billion people worldwide.

However, the commercially-developed labor caste possessed an immunity to the virus. Within a short time, they became the dominant human species on the planet.

Eventually only one surviving specimen of Homo sapiens sapiens remained:

Long after the last signs of civilization had crumbled to ruins, long after the genetic upheaval settled back into ecological equilibrium…

This is when the film takes place.

A Conversation with the real Cosima

I really believe in the power of asking. Want that job? Ask. Want a better price on that rad vintage bar cart? Ask. Want to go to happy hour with the woman who inspired one of your favorite characters on one of your favorite television shows ever? Yeah, I totally asked. 

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I invited Cosima Herter out for a drink, never expecting an answer. To my delight and surprise, she was lovely and obliged me. For those who need an education, she’s the science consultant for Orphan Black, which returns this Saturday on BBC America. In addition, she serves as the inspiration for a character who shares her name. And while I definitely asked her about the fictional Cosima, I was most amazed by the real person. A professor at the University of Minnesota, we shared many of the same passions. Finding ways to get girls interested in science. A mutual love of British television. And most importantly, a desire to show a more diverse and real set of women on television. With her role in Orphan Black, it’s clear she’s having an influence. 

Q. When Graeme first came to you with Orphan Black, what struck you about it?

A. When Graeme first talked to me about the story he’d been working on, it was still in a really conceptual stage. Interesting and exciting, to be sure – but really only a concept. Graeme is an extraordinary thinker, with such remarkable wit, and this story was all the more exciting to me because some of the ideas that he was pondering were pretty in-line with both my own research at school at the time, and ideas that I love thinking about more generally. It was fascinating to observe how we thought about some of the very same issues, but in such different ways. Graeme has such a dark, hilariously distorted take on things! So I was really happy about the fact that we had this unlikely convergence of interests because we’d been friends for a long time, but it was the first time our respective work crossed intellectual-paths. And since we have both always been very busy with our own different projects, a lot of time could pass between moments when might be able to have conversations about it – just passing around and musing about ideas… like: Darwin, evolution, biotechnology, genetic engineering, and all manner of social, political, historical, and philosophically related issues. I think, in an oblique sense, the most striking thing is that Orphan Black became a vehicle for all kinds of interesting conversations between Graeme and I over the longue durée. I love nothing more than to have conversations about ideas!

Q. It’s exciting that the show runners wanted the science to be accurate - why is that important to you and how do you ensure it’s narratively interesting while still being representative of reality?

A. You’re right, it IS important to me (to all of us, I think). But it’s also a fictional narrative, not a documentary. So I don’t get stringently protective about the exactness or accuracy when there’s a reason to make some of the science far more elastic than it realistically could be (like, for example… oh, I don’t know… human clones running around!). That being said, we are quite conscientious about trying to represent the issues around cloning, evolution, eugenics, genetic engineering, synthetic biology, patenting, etc in a way that does map onto real life. Most of these issues truly are current, and actually functional realities to some degree. They are already profoundly provocative in their own right without needing to be fictionalized! Bio-scientific experimentation, for example – even if it fails – is still science (we’re not saying it’s always good science, however!). It’s important to keep in mind that most of the discoveries in biology we depend on regularly – not least insofar as medicine is concerned – have found success only after a long history of, sometimes bizarre, experimentation. And they also need to be understood in their historical context. One of the things that is most important to me is to represent the philosophical issues by showing just how complex they are, that there are no easy ways to analyze them. And they need to be represented in unusual and thought-provoking ways that actually speak to how multi-dimensional they are. I’m not capable of solving any of these issues, but I do want to put a little bee in viewers’ bonnet’s so that they’ll be stimulated enough to think and talk about them in ways they may not have done otherwise.

Q. The clones are all strong women and yet are all deeply different. In your view, how much of it is their “shared nature” and how much is nurture?

A. Well, insofar as clones (or twins for that matter) are concerned, no two organisms, despite having the same genes, would be exactly identical – not physically, and certainly not psychologically. Development, for example – embryonically and throughout one’s life – plays a very important role as well. So the question can’t really be boiled down to nature/nurture. It’s a common trope to reduce, especially humans, to this simple dichotomy, and while we do play on this somewhat, we also want to show just how complicated that idea is. The women of Orphan Black are complex characters – they develop, grow, love, learn, evolve – just like ‘real’ people do. I am an unapologetic feminist, and there are LOTS of different kinds of women – this can’t be boiled down to biology alone. If we are left with only the formula of nature/nurture, then we’d be stripped of all personal agency. I’m also an unapologetic existentialist. So, certainly we are subject to the machinations of our bodies, subject to our physical & psychic environments, but I like to believe that we also have some measure of agency to make choices, effect change in the world, and assert a kind of selfhood and subjectivity that derives from a rich-inner life and our experiences in the world. The idea that we are fully determined by factors we can’t control makes me feel stripped of that agency. The female characters of Orphan Black have a lot of strength, courage, creativity, and willfulness that is often denied women in media portrayals – that’s really exciting to me.

Q. If you found out you were a clone, what would you do? Would you react like Cosima and try to get to the bottom of the science? Or would you be more like Sarah and go undercover? Or do you think you’d be more like Allison and become suspicious of everyone?

A. If I met a clone of myself – or of anyone, for that matter – I probably would react most like Cosima. I think that yes, I would be interested in the physical science of her creation, but more likely I’d be curious as to the psychology of why someone created clones in the first place. I’m more of a curious than paranoid person. And unless someone was actually trying to assassinate me, I can’t see any reason why I’d run away from her!

Q. Who is your favorite clone and why?

A. Allison! Most definitely Allison. She and I couldn’t be more different, but I love how difficult, multifaceted, unpredictable, and unprecedented of a character she is. I think that while Tatiana’s portrayal of her is brilliant for how hilarious Allison is, it’s even more so because it’s very, very sensitive and nuanced. She’s not a cartoon, she’s no joke. She’s fierce and capable and competent, and richly unique.

Q. Cosima is loosely based on you, so what qualities do you and Cosima share?

A. The hand-wavey, pacing around, going off on tangents about all kinds of weird things while she talks, is a similar characteristic (one that my friends often tease me about). She’s cheeky, mischievous, curious about everything, and sincere – I think that’s pretty true-to-life. And, the “I’m kind of always late, so I’m kind of always sorry” is embarrassingly accurate. She definitely has a better wardrobe, and much nicer apartment than I do! I’ve never had dreadlocks (although I did consider it many, many years ago). Cosima and I do listen to similar music, but I’m a child of the ‘70’s and I love most dancing to more disco, funky, bass-driven, hip-grindy type music.

Q. When you see Tatiana Maslany playing Cosima, do you recognize anything she may have directly picked up from your personality? If you feel comfortable sharing, what are those little easter eggs for viewers?

A. That’s really difficult for me to say. When I see Cosima I don’t think about her as some kind of iteration of me – she’s a fictional character that Tatiana plays beautifully. I really try not to think about it too much, it’s just too surreal. More than once I’ve turned to Graeme after seeing/hearing Cosima do or say something, and laughed “that really does sound like something I would say!” to which he’d respond, “well, that’s because you actually did say that!” But, if I think about it too much, I begin feeling strangely self-conscious about it, so I have to remain pretty detached. She’s the most difficult character for me to form an unbiased opinion about (not that I’m really unbiased about any of them – I love them all). I try not to look for similarities because it kind of makes me feel a bit weird. Instead I just admire how remarkable the writers and Tatiana are at bringing her to life.

Q. What can people look forward to in Season 2?

A. Pure awesomeness!

Complex or Confused: The Search for a Moral Compass in Orphan Black

I remember the first episode. I remember the first scene. We all do. The mysterious woman on the platform. The screech of the train tracks. The purse and pair of shoes that were left behind.

Beth Childs. Dead.

We didn’t know her name then, but we knew we were supposed to care. We knew that her death meant something. In fact, that it meant everything to this show. Her death was the premise, the origin, the starting point of the journey we were about to be taken on.

And the journey through season one was a clear one. They took the premise—the clone premise—and they milked it for what it was worth, bringing up complex ideas, such as autonomy, liberty, sexuality, individuality, nature vs. nurture, and the ethics of genetic patents. The origin was clear, the hero was clear, the path was clear. It was all mapped out for us.

We knew we were supposed to care about the clones. And why? Was it their cloneness that earned them our automatic sympathies? As far as I can tell, the only “special” one might be Kira, though her apparent prescience has not been explained or proven yet. Aside from this, our only true motivation for sympathizing with the clones, is simply because they are human, and all humans deserve liberty and happiness. And as such, the ones hunting them, are the bad guys.

Fast forward to season two.

I showed up with my map, the one I have carried with me from season one—the map with the moral compass that says all human life is valuable. But throughout the season I found myself folding and unfolding the story lines in my mind, turning them over, examining and reexamining, trying to see where they fit on this map.

It was becoming clear that the show was expanding, becoming more complex. And that was to be expected, right? It was the second season. There was room to grow. New characters, new settings, new motivations, new bad guys—even new clone phones. But something else was growing, too.

The body count.

Not only was the body count growing, but it seemed as though the characters’ (particularly the clones) reverence toward the body count was declining.

Alison and Donnie banging over Leekie’s dead body. Cosima involving Kira, a child, into a scheme to maim, or at least harm, Rachel (who is also clone, which would make it even more taboo, if their cloneness was what made them sympathetic.) And Helena, raping a man who raped her, and burning an entire building, perhaps with the intention to harm them all.

At the end of season two, I checked my map. I thought I was looking at the same show, but it was hard to tell which way was north and which was south.

Flash forward to season three.

We are four episodes in. I have my map. I have my rulers. I have my fucking GPS. And I swear, I have no idea anymore where this is going. So many characters. So many plots. So many settings. So much coming and going that I’m finding it hard to track the movements. And even these things I would forgive, if I thought there was a moral compass guiding these people, these characters.

But I’m so befuddled by the clones’ willingness to sweep dead bodies under the rug, or to inflict violence on others, that I’m wondering if any of it means anything anymore.

If the clones don’t care—why should I?