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Obama and gene ownership: Who has a right to nature's DNA?

The Justice Department reversed US policy last week about proprietary rights to existing genes. And a new global pact claims a nation can profit from others' use of genes taken from that country. Aren't nature's genetic codes universal enough not to be owned?

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In two settings last week, the Obama administration took on the issue of gene ownership, or the proprietary right to the ideas embedded in the genetic code of humans, plants, and animals.

The first setting was in a federal court case. The US Justice Department offered a legal brief Friday that reversed longstanding government policy and asserted that scientific discoveries of existing genes cannot be patented for private gain.

The second setting was at a United Nations meeting about biological diversity held in Nagoya, Japan, and attended by some 190 nations.

There the US delegation endorsed a new international agreement concluded Saturday that calls for any profits from the genetic resources found in a country or used by indigenous people – such as a derivative from a local plant to make a new cosmetic – to be shared “fairly and equitably” with them.

The agreement, known as the Nagoya Protocols, was vague enough for the US and other countries with biotech companies doing genetic research to not go along with it. And the US Senate has yet to ratify the underlying treaty, the UN Convention on Biodiversity, which came into force in 1993.

These US stances on gene ownership once again raise difficult questions about exploiting nature’s most basic living material.

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