AuthorDavid Koepsell
ProfessionAuthor, philosopher, attorney, and educator whose recent research focuses on the nexus of science, technology, ethics, and public policy
“Who owns you?” It seems an odd and dated question. Slavery, after all, has
been universally outlawed, and while exploitation and pockets of indentured
servitude, human trafficking, and other modern forms of slavery continue,
it is not a real concern for the majority of the human race, most especially
those of you who can afford this book. You quite rightly need not fear being
owned in the most traditional and reprehensible sense by which humans
purchased, traded, and used other humans for labor over many millennia.
So what is the fuss? No one owns me, so why should I care? Unfortunately,
it is not so simple. New and more subtle forms of ownership have emerged
in the past hundred years that now impact on essential qualities and fea-
tures of each of us. When intellectual property laws were first conceived,
the notion was to encourage the invention and authorship of useful and
pleasing machines, devices, stories, music, and art. Until recently, thanks to
creative interpretations and applications of patent laws, unaltered aspects
ofliving things could be effectively owned. Patents were been issued, in
surprisingly large numbers, on the essential building blocks of multiple
life‐forms, including humans—including you.
You and Your Genes
Before we begin to explore the ways in which patents have been used to
claim rights over genes (which are parts of you), let us spend a little time
getting to know what a gene is, and how genes relate to you, the species, and
every other living thing. There is a more in‐depth scientific discussion of
genes in Chapter3, so this will be just a very superficial introduction to get
us into the topic, and then we will begin discussing the implications of
gene patents ethically, socially, and politically, as well as the legal landscape
Introduction xxv
which has, since the first edition of this book, changed rather significantly
of late.
All living things are composed of complex molecules called proteins, as
well as other mostly “organic” (meaning carbon‐based) molecules. The
instructions for building all of these molecules, and putting them together
in the form they are in (as bacteria, monkeys, or elephants, for instance)
are encoded in one very complex type of molecule typically known as
deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA. We are all pretty much familiar with the
depiction of the famous structure of DNA as a double helix, and many are
familiar with the drama of that discovery by the scientists Francis Crick,
James Watson, and their lesser‐known but equally important colleagues
Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins. In sum, DNA encodes the
information used by each cell of every living thing to make it grow as it
does and live as it does.1
We are still in the midst of deciphering the complex code of DNA.
Scientists are attempting to understand how certain parts of the code are
responsible for our individual traits and characteristics, such as eye color,
height, appearance, propensities for diseases, and genetic or hereditary
diseases themselves. Human DNA has roughly three billion single ele-
ments, and we can think of each one of these three billion for now as
a digit, or like a “bit” in computer code—the smallest unit of useful
information in the code. Except, in DNA, each bit can have one of four
different values (A, C, T, or G, standing for the four nucleic acids involved:
adenine, cytosine, thymine, and guanine) whereas in binary computer
code, bits are only “0” or “1.” Like subroutines in computer code, strings
within the three billion “base pairs” cause certain things to happen in
methodical, determinable ways. One of the best understood “subroutines”
is what we call a “gene.” For decades, scientists have labored under the
working hypothesis that “each gene codes a protein,” which means that
there are recognizable substrings within the DNA that cause cells to make
specific proteins. Many of our features result from multiple genes working
together to grow and enable systems to function. Thus, for instance, there
are genes that cause the eyes of all color‐sighted animals to grow and
maintain functioning cones that enable all of those creatures to vie w
things in color. The genes responsible are shared among all color‐sighted
humans, as well as all known color‐sighted creatures in general, from fruit
flies to elephants. Scientists still work under the presumption that every
single element of our development and ongoing metabolism is largely

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