The term “life hack” is a widespread cliché these days, but new research published recently in Science has revealed that a world of recoded microbes (“hacked life”, if you will) might not be far away.
Such bespoke organisms will have their genetic code reprogrammed to express novel forms or variants of their own proteins and it is hoped that these novel proteins will have advantageous properties which may be harnessed for industrial use. The creation of novel antibiotics is a real possibility. Industrially useful bacteria resistant to viral infection is another.
This work is still in its early days and much of the work was done in silico, but proof of principle appears to be confirmed with the researchers showing that genome scale recoded nucleic acids can be synthesised reliably and show functionality in host cells.
The developments are a tantalising glimpse at a new era of biotech innovation which should lead to an abundance of IP. It is established law that genetically modified microorganisms are patentable in most jurisdictions globally and I see no reason why microorganisms engineered in this way would not be treated in the same way. Likewise, the novel products arising from such organisms and their methods of preparation should also be found patentable on the basis of current principles and practice. The non-natural features of this technology should even mean a safe harbour against the USPTO’s current strict stance on the patentability of “natural” products.
Nevertheless, the pioneering nature of this field will no doubt see patent offices apply their criteria for enablement, support and plausibility strictly and so the inventors of the future will need to be in a position to show that they have indeed built and tested the designer microorganisms they might seek to claim, and to show that they have isolated and validated the advantageous products derived therefrom, before filing their patent applications. Consequently, it will likely be some time before the patent system starts to see applications directed to the fruits of this new and powerful technology, but I for one look forward to the new era with interest.