Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Open Source Genetics!

Am currently reading this book - 'DNA - the secret of life' by James D Watson, in which he chronicles various events that started after the discovery of the double helix by himself and Francis Crick in the 1950s. Its a nice read if you want to know new things on DNA. At least i did not know most of the stuff written in that book.

One fact that struck me most and makes me very uncomfortable is that, often science is closely associated with commerce. This is very true nowadays in case of genetics and in the era where the scientists work to find something before anybody does and patents it; i.e. you have to be the first one to find it otherwise all the effort is gone waste. If you cant patent something then its of now use.

Take for example that there is some research going on to find the gene associated with some disease X and team A and team B are working on it spending lots of money and time. Suppose team A cracks it first and patents it. Then team B cannot work anymore on that gene. In other words no other person or company can use the information discovered by team A to discover drug or to do anything on that gene. Its the sole property of team A now! and only they can work on it.

How does this sound to you ? Its sounds absurd to me. It practically stops everybody who want to work on that disease and hence reducing the probability of the drug being found for that gene.

I do understand that those scientists must have put a lot of money to come till that point. But closing further access to others or giving permission only on large sums of money simply beats me. May be they should work out a model where in they get back all the money that they had put in and some profit. But money really complicates things. When you know that you can milk money out of something, I guess you will.

Why cant this work like open source software ? Here companies develop things and distribute it for free. But they eventually benefit from the users of the software and all the associated training, enhancements and everything related to the product. If anybody uses open source software, it has to be open source as well.

If we translate this idea to genetics, it will be like this: If team A decides to put its discovery in open source, then any further discoveries resulting out of this have to be open source. Sounds simple. But its not as easy as software. We are dealing with humans here and we tend to exploit whatever we can out of the discovery. Its a matter of life and death.

At the end of the day it looks like money matters to most of the scientists today. I always thought that, it was only pure curiosity and the desire to find things, that drives them. Unfortunately thats not the truth.

At least pure physics is free from all this patent stuff i guess. I don't think anybody would benefit from a discovery which predicts the size of the universe!! It is pure knowledge. But who knows.. may be one day! thats why we patent stuff.

Its a debatable topic: Should Genetics be made open source ?

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