Symposium Tackles Intellectual Property Challenges for Synthetic Biology

Achievement date: 

A first-of-its-kind Synthetic Biology Ownership, Sharing & Innovation Symposium (SynBiOSIS) was hosted in January 2012 at Stanford University by the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC). Stanford is a participant in SynBERC, an NSF-funded center headquartered at the University of California at Berkeley. The symposium was organized by Stanford’s Department of Bioengineering and School of Law to consider how the mechanics of property rights might best be applied or updated to meet the rapidly-evolving needs in the field of synthetic biology.


Researchers are facing growing property rights challenges because advances in synthetic biology are stressing the existing legal framework. SynBiOSIS brought together 24 participants—including policy makers, funders, industrial synthetic biologists, and practicing and academic lawyers—to review case studies, compare scenarios, and draft initial proposals for addressing the issues. SynBERC legal scholar Linda Kahl and bioengineering researcher Drew Endy wrote a follow-up report that they plan to publish as a means of advancing the proposals.


Uses of genetic functions are now typically protected and shared via a patent-based property rights framework. However, new tools are producing such tremendous increases in both the complexity and scale of DNA parts and systems that existing patent-based ownership, sharing, and innovation frameworks are either ignored or simply breaking.

"We are not exploring how to do away with property rights, and we are not against wealth creation," said Linda Kahl, symposium co-organizer and SynBERC Research Associate at Stanford. "Just the opposite. We believe the existence of property rights and the concomitant incentive for investment can promote innovation in biotechnology."

The symposium did not reveal a single “silver bullet” approach that meets all of the performance goals and implementation criteria for promoting innovation in synthetic biology. Rather, multiple efforts by individuals and institutions working at many levels—policy and legislation, investors and funding agencies, practitioners and community—are needed to foster intellectual property frameworks that support innovation in synthetic biology. Kahl and Endy plan to publish their report in articles placed to reach the synthetic biology research community as well as policy makers, the legal community, and other stakeholders interested in promoting innovation in synthetic biology.