Invisible genomes: the genomics revolution and patenting practice

Adam Bostanci, Jane Calvert

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In the mid-1990s, the company Human Genome Sciences submitted three potentially revolutionary patent applications to the US Patent and Trademark Office, each of which claimed the entire genome sequence of a microorganism. The patent examiners, however, objected to these applications, and after negotiation they were eventually re-written to resemble more traditional gene patents. In this paper, which is based on a study of the patent examination files, we examine the reasons why these patent applications were unsuccessful in their original form. We show that with respect to utility and novelty, the patent attorney's case built on an understanding of the genome as a computer-related invention. The patent examiners did not object to the patenting of complete genome sequences as computer-related inventions on moral grounds or in terms of the distinction between a discovery and an invention. Instead, their objections were based on classification, rules and procedure. Rather than patent examiners having a notion of a genome that should not be patented, the notion of a 'genome', and the ways in which it may be different from a 'gene', played no role in these debates. We discuss the consequences of our findings for patenting in the biosciences.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)109-19
Number of pages11
JournalStudies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2008


  • Genomics
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Intellectual Property
  • Patents as Topic
  • United States


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