Is a human being patentable?
It was on this day in 1981 that a U.S. patent was issued to Ananda Chakrabarty, at the time an engineer for General Electric, for a new single cell life form - the first "organic" patent ever received. The issuing of the patent was preceded by a court battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court which ultimately ruled, 5-4, that the important distinction that determined whether an invention was eligible for a patent wasn't between a living being or an inanimate object, but between a naturally occurring being, or a product of "human ingenuity and research". It was thus determined that Chakrabarty was eligible for his patent.
Chakrabarty first created (would "breeded" be a better word?) his organism - a bacterium capable of breaking down crude oil - in 1971. Simpler substances, edible by aquatic life, resulted from the break down of the oil. It was hoped, perhaps even expected, that the bacterium would help clean up oil spills. Instead it helped cloud the field of bio-ethics. All of a sudden scientists took the possibility of "creating life" seriously, and what's more, they saw this as a very profitable field. Today gene patents have become commonplace, and the fear of playing God plays a continual counterpoint to those patents.
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