Supreme Court

The supreme court ruled on the Myriad genetics case this week and they unanimously held that genes from nature are not patentable. That’s the right decision.

The Justices in their decision demonstrated some pretty bad science illiteracy, however. Thinking the term cDNA means ‘composite DNA’ and not what it actually is: complementary DNA for instance. And Justice Scalia wrote a concurring opinion stating that he couldn’t affirm his knowledge or belief in the basic molecular biology underpinning the case even though he agreed with the ruling. These are 9 smart people with smart people working for them. And yet they demonstrated scientific illiteracy about some of the most basic of biology.

And they’re not the only ones. I have trouble conveying what I do for a living to friends as well. they’re not biologists. They don’t have the concerns of a scientist. they have their own careers to focus on. That said, I wish there was a standard knowledge base that nearly everyone had (this is true of more than just biology- I think everyone should know the order of the planets and that they go around the sun, which planets have moons, and how long the Earth takes to go around the sun as well as why we have seasons here on Earth).

So here are the molecular biology concepts I wish that everyone knew:

  • A gene is a specific sequence of DNA on a chromosome (and genes can have many variations, or alleles, which are the raw material of natural selection and account for the different humans that exist, and the different organisms in nature).
  • A chromosome can contain thousands of individual genes.
  • Genes have DNA near them that determine whether they are switched on or off depending on contexts.
  • When a gene is switched on, or expressed as we biologists say, they become messenger RNA (mRNA) that is single stranded, as opposed to the iconic double helix of DNA (the mRNA sequence is based on what biologists call the ‘coding strand’ of DNA).
  • mRNA, after some processing, can be translated (read) into a protein which do all of the activities to build and maintain a cell.
  • Some viruses, that have an RNA genome, such as HIV, have a gene called reverse transcriptase that makes a DNA copy from an RNA template. this is a complementary DNA, or cDNA. In the case of a virus, this allows the viral genome to be integrated into the host genome, to be awakened later.
  • Reverse transcriptase has been isolated in many forms and can be used to make a DNA copy of a fully processed mRNA molecule. That is what Myriad made. In molecular biology research, making cDNA allows for easy quantification of gene expression level.

I’m probably not the greatest communicator of science, but these are the things I would like everyone to know. These ideas of basic genetics are the keys to the rest of modern biology.

Ever on and on.


Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

3 thoughts on “Patent.”

  1. I agree that if the SC puts facts in its opinion, it should get them right. I agree with Scalia, however, that the simplest way to handle that is to only sign off on the facts absolutely necessary for the opinion.

    Frankly, I find most of the criticism of this Court opinion from some circles quite puzzling. I don’t think it is fair to assume that the SC doesn’t know biology, or that Scalia doesn’t believe in it, or anything like that. As one of the probably minority of attorneys who was pre-med and has a pretty good background in biology and chemistry, I *still* wouldn’t want to write an opinion chock full of biology facts if I could in any way help it. I have the basic knowledge in your bullet points, above, and I’m quite sure I could still make an error drafting an opinion — and to what gain, if that’s not an important part of the opinion?

    I think the important question is: Are there any errors the Court made in its opinion that are factually significant to the legal issues and that lower courts will have to work around or adhere to despite the errors? If not, then what are we really saying — that these 9 “smart” people should also be Biology master’s students? And then, in the next case, chemistry masters, or engineers, or…?

    The nature of being a judge most of the time is that you’re doing a little bit of everything, and you have to rely on expert opinions for information on certain subject matters. And remember, the SC isn’t even a trial court. It is an appellate court — the highest court in the land. The structure of our legal system is such that it is the district courts that generally make decisions on what the facts are, while appellate courts, and especially the Supreme Courts, deal (almost) exclusively with deciding questions of law. The facts, while important, are background to the decision and should be already decided by the time it gets past the trial judge, and if they aren’t, the Appellate Court (with very limited exceptions) sends the case back to the trial level rather than trying to decide the facts themselves.

    1. In reading more about this, I don’t disagree. Though the line the court drew is a little strange (and I don’t know if it comes from a misunderstanding of the biology or not); cDNA is patentable because it’s synthetic. But the information in the cDNA is the same that’s encoded in the gene (or a subset of it at least), so though it’s slightly removed, it’s still patenting a discovery, not an invention. They had to draw the line some where, but I don’t think I agree with where it’s drawn. If Myriad took that cDNA and put it into a plasmid or virus to create a whole new DNA molecule, then that seems sufficient enough to count as an invention and merits intellectual property protection.

      Scientists as a whole are feeling embattled these days I think (funding is extremely tight, citizens don’t draw the line from lab to innovation to long term health of democracy and the economy, climate scientists have it the worst just now I think- deniers threaten violence sometimes). So when a body as prominent as SCOTUS appears to get their facts wrong (the majority did part of it wrong, and Scalia just said ‘I don’t know’- even when the facts have already been vetted by lower courts, apparently. The Library of Congress is right across the street- they couldn’t go grab a text book to look this stuff up? And Google exists too. Is SCOTUS allowed to bring in outside consultants? This is science that’s so well established that it’s hard to believe you can’t get it right in a decision that was crafted over months. Anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers (some in very prominent positions), creationists, Sasquatch hunters (and genome sequencers…), Ghost chasers, Anti-GMO, and other pseudoscience is so prevalent that we feel like we’re fighting a losing battle for reason and critical thinking (SCOTUS isn’t necessarily guilty of that- they certainly explain their reasoning process, though maybe they don’t ask enough questions at times)- in an era when every major issue we confront has a scientific aspect to it. It’s a problem. So did we rush to judgement here, yes, probably (no doubt it’s hard being a judge doing a little bit of everything, but I presume they became judges in part because they like learning new things). And I’m also fairly certain it’s nowhere near the worst blow back the court has gotten from a case in it’s long history.

      While the science doesn’t really affect the legal decision in this case, I feel like they included the science to bring some context to their decision; otherwise it might not have been clear where they were coming from their distinguishing of synthetic vs. natural.

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