GMOs and Patents: Part 1 – Terminator Genes

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by Layla Katiraee

This is the first of three posts examining the topic of GMOs and patents. As the first post in the series, I’ll provide an overview on the topic of patents and will describe the concept of “terminator genes”; the second post will examine a few high-profile lawsuits brought against farmers for using GM seeds, and the final post will examine whether there have been cases of lawsuits brought against farmers due to inadvertent contamination.

Before I continue, I must add an important disclaimer: as a research scientist developing genetic assays, my income relies on the fact that I help make unique products whose patents are protected and defended. It takes years to develop a well-functioning product, and companies rely on patents to recover the heavy investment made in R&D. Even when I went through grad school, we signed documents regarding patents (basically outlining how anything we discovered would be property of the University/Hospital). As such, I believe that patents have a purpose, which is the same purpose as copyrights/patents on art, music, electronics, and software: to respect the work of its authors. To have a product reverse engineered at a fraction of the price the year after a product’s release is highly unethical and I believe that patents can prevent such incidents from happening. My perspective is that if consumers don’t like the fact that the item they’re purchasing is patented, they can try to find an item that performs the same function that is open-source or off-patent. It is also important that this not be misconstrued into an argument supporting excessive earnings or corporate rights, nor do I believe that patent laws are perfect.

With that in mind, let’s investigate the topic of intellectual property surrounding seeds.

Enforcing Patents on Plants

The International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), is an organization established about 50 years ago with the express purpose of protecting new varieties of plants with Intellectual Property laws. The organization has a long list of member nations, including the US, Canada, Chile, and many nations in the EU. The plants protected under its laws are not only genetically modified plants, but also plants generated through traditional breeding. In order to be granted breeder’s rights, the plant variety must be new, distinct, and must be genetically stable and uniform (basically meaning that each seed should be genetically identical to the next). The breeder’s rights are then protected through legislation in each member nation. Breeders can license their technology to other companies or institutions. There are also exemptions, including uses such as research and subsistence farming.

Some transgenic crops are coming off patent (which basically means that a patent has expired). Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready Soy Bean came off patent late last year, and became the first open-source or generic GMO. Karl Haro von Mogel wrote about the implications of this event in this blog post.

It must be stressed that GM seeds are not the only plants to have patents. Decorative plants, such as orchids and roses, are commonly patented as well. Pluots didn’t just appear in a day: their development took much research and trial/error. As such, there are patented varieties of pluots. Thus, the patenting of seeds is much broader than just GM crops (see this Google document for unofficial lists of patented plants).

Genetic Use Restriction Technologies and Sterile Seeds

Before I started learning about GMOs, I had heard about “Terminator Genes” and had been under the impression that many genetically modified seeds used this technology. Legend has it that GMOs are sterile due to terminator genes, which forces farmers to buy seeds from one season to the next. In reality, terminator genes do exist, but they have never been commercialized. The bulk of the information in this section is summarized in the freely available article “Genetic use restriction technologies: a review“.

The technical name for Terminator Gene technology is “Genetic Use Restriction Technology” or GURT, and there are two types of GURTs: varietal GURTs (V-GURT) and trait GURTs (T-GURT). V-GURTs allow breeders to develop plants that grow and form seeds, but the second generation of seeds is sterile. There are different types of V-GURTS, including some designed to prevent gene-flow or “cross-contamination” between transgenics and other crops. The T-GURT technology has the trait (herbicide tolerance, biofortification, etc) controlled by a molecular switch which is activated by a chemical or some other stimulus, such as heat. Using this technology, breeders would provide farmers with “activated” seeds which would have the trait of interest, but the seeds of these crops would not have the trait activated.

Read more.

Featured image: Layla Katiraee
Layla Parker-Katiraee holds a Ph.D. in Molecular Genetics from the University of Toronto and a Bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Western Ontario. She is currently a Senior Scientist in Product Development at a California human genetics biotech company. All views and opinions expressed are her own.