Skip to main content

The Commodification of Emergence: Systems Biology, Synthetic Biology and Intellectual Property

  • Jane Calvert (a1)

In this article I address the interactions between biological knowledge and ideas about the kinds of entity that are suited to appropriation. I start by arguing that commodification and reductionism are closely linked, and that patenting suits entities that are discrete and isolable, such as those that are the focus of molecular biology. I then turn to the new field of systems biology, which recognizes that traditional reductionist approaches to biology are no longer adequate and attempts to provide a more integrative understanding of biological systems. In doing this, systems biology has to deal with emergent phenomena. But patenting does not suit the dynamic and interactive complexity that is the object of study in systems biology. If systems biology rejects reductionism where does that leave commodification? I examine attempts to commodify predictive computational models in systems biology. I then turn to systems biology's sister discipline, synthetic biology, which deals with emergence by reducing the complexity of biological systems. By factoring out messy contingencies, synthetic biology is, in theory, well suited to commodification. Drawing on both these examples I explore how ideas about appropriation, including open source, are influencing the nature and course of research in biology.

Hide All
Adelman, D.E. (2005). A fallacy of the commons in biotech patent policy. Berkeley Technology Law Journal, 20, 9851030.
Allarakhia, M., & Wensley, A. (2005). Innovation and intellectual property rights in systems biology. Nature Biotechnology, 23(12), 14851488.
Amgen Inc. v. Chugai Pharmaceutical Co. (1991). URL (accessed October 2008):
Andrianantoandro, E., Basu, S., Karig, D.K., & Weiss, R. (2006). Synthetic biology: New engineering rules for an emerging discipline. Molecular Systems Biology, URL (accessed October 2008):
Ashcroft, R.E. (2003). The double helix 50 years on: Models, metaphors, and reductionism. Journal of Medical Ethics, 29: 6364.
Auffray, C., Imbeaud, S., Roux-Rouquié, M., & Hood, L. (2003). From functional genomics to systems biology: Concepts and practices. Compte Rendus Biologies, 326(10), 879889.
Balaram, P. (2003). Synthesising life. Current Science, 85(11), 15091510.
Balmer, B.L. (1996). Managing mapping in the human genome project. Social Studies of Science, 26(3), 531573.
Barrett, C.L., Kim, T.Y., Kim, H.U., Palsson, B.Ø., & Lee, S.Y. (2006). Systems biology as a foundation for genome-scale synthetic biology. Current Opinion in Biotechnology, 17(5), 15.
BBSRC (2006). Towards a vision and road map for systems biology. Report from the BBSRC Vision for Systems Biology Workshop, Exeter, 16–17 March.
Behrens, T.R., & Gray, D.O. (2001). Unintended consequences of co-operative research: Impact of industry sponsorship on climate for academic freedom and other graduate student outcomes. Research Policy, 30(2), 179199.
Benner, S.A., & Sismour, A.M. (2005). Synthetic biology. Nature Reviews Genetics, 6, 533543.
Biagioli, M. (2007). Denaturalizing the public domain: How to use science studies to rethink IP. Talk at the University of Edinburgh, 10 December.
BIOS (2008). URL (accessed January 2008):
Blumenthal, D., Causino, N., Campbell, E., & Lewis, K.S. (1996). Relationships between academics institutions and industry in the life sciences—An industry survey. New England Journal of Medicine, 334(6), 368373.
Bonneuil, C., & Gaudillière, J.-P. (2007). Navigating post-Fordist DNA: Network, regulations and variability in genomics and society. Presentation at the International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology, University of Exeter, 25–29 July.
Boogerd, F., Bruggeman, F.J., Hofmeyr, J.-H.S., & Westerhoff, H.V. (Eds) (2007). Systems biology: Philosophical foundations. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
Breithaupt, H. (2006). The engineer's approach to biology. EMBO Reports, 7(1), 2124.
Brent, R. (2004). A partnership between biology and engineering. Nature Biotechnology, 22(10), 12111214.
Broad, C.D. (1925). The mind and its place in nature. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Callon, M. (Ed.) (1998). The laws of the markets. London: Blackwell Publishers.
Callon, M. (2007). What does it mean to say that economics is performative? In MacKenzie, D., Muniesa, F., & Siu, L. (Eds.), Do economists make markets? On the performativity of economics. 311–357 Princeton. NJ: Princeton UP.
Caulfield, T., Cook-Deegan, R.M., Kieff, FS, & Walsh, J.P. (2006). Evidence and anecdotes: An analysis of human gene patenting controversies. Nature Biotechnology, 24(9), 10911095.
Crick, F. (1966). The influence of physics on molecular biology (Cherwell-Simon Lecture), URL (accessed October 2008):
De Vriend, H. (2006). Constructing life: Early social reflections on the emerging field of synthetic biology. The Hague: Rathenau Institute. Working Document 97, URL (accessed June 2008):
Dupré, J. (2007). Is it not possible to reduce biological explanations to explanations in chemistry and/or physics. Egenis working paper.
Endy, D. (2005). Foundations for engineering biology. Nature, 438(24 November), 449453.
Etzkowitz, H., & Leydesdorff, L. (2001). Universities and the global knowledge economy: A triple helix of university–industry–government relations. London: Continuum.
Ferber, D. (2004). Microbes made to order. Science, 303 (9 January), 158161.
Franklin, S. (2003). Kinship, genes, and cloning: Life after Dolly. In Goodman, A., Heath, D., & Lindee, S. (Eds.), Genetic nature/culture: Anthropology and science beyond the two-culture divide, 95–110. Berkeley: U California Press.
GenomeWeb Daily News (2008). Codon Devices, Blue Heron settle litigation. GenomeWeb Daily News 31 March, URL (accessed July 2008):
Gibbons, M., & Wittrock, B. (Eds) (1985). Science as a commodity. Essex: Longman.
Gibbons, M., Limoges, C., Nowotny, H., Schwartzman, S., Scott, P., & Trow, M. (1994). The new production of knowledge. London: SAGE.
Gilbert, S.F., & Sarkar, S. (2000). Embracing complexity: Organicism for the 21st century. Developmental Dynamics, 219(1), 19.
Glass, J.I., Smith, H.O., Hutchinson III, C.A., Alperovich, N.Y., & Assad-Garcia, N. (Inventors); J. Craig Venter Institute, Inc. (Assignee). 2007, October 12. Minimal bacterial genome. United States patent application 20070122826.
Hacking, I. (1983). Representing and intervening: Introductory topics in the philosophy of natural science. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
Heinemann, M., & Panke, S. (2006). Synthetic biology—Putting engineering into biology. Bioinformatics, 22(22), 27902799.
Heller, M.A., & Eisenberg, R.S. (1998). Can patents deter innovation? The anticommons in biomedical research. Science, 280(1 May), 698701.
Hellström, T., & Jacob, M. (2005). Taming unruly science and saving national competitiveness: Discourses on science by Swedish strategic research bodies. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 30(4), 443467.
Henkel, J., & Maurer, S.M. (2007). The economics of synthetic biology. Molecular Systems Biology 3: 117, URL (accessed October 2008):
Hodgson, G.M. (2000). The concept of emergence in social science: Its history and importance. Emergence, 2(4), 6577.
Hoeyer, K. (2007). Person, patent and property: A critique of the commodification hypothesis. BioSocieties, 2, 327348.
Holm, P. (2007). Which way is up on Callon? In MacKenzie, D., Muniesa, F., & Siu, L. (Eds.) Do economists make markets? On the performativity of economics, 225–243. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP.
Huang, S. (2000). The practical problems of post-genomic biology. Nature Biotechnology, 18(5), 471472.
Isaacs, F.J., & Collins, J.J. (2005). Plug and play with RNA. Nature Biotechnology, 23(3), 306307.
Jacob, M. (2003). Rethinking science and commodifying knowledge. Policy Futures in Education, 1(1), 125142.
Jansanoff, S. (Ed.) (2004). States of knowledge: The co-production of science and the social order. London: Routledge.
Keasling, J. (2005). The promise of synthetic biology. The Bridge, 35 (4), URL (accessed July 2008):
Keasling, J., Vincent, M., Pitera, D., Kim, S.-W., Sydnor, W.T., Yasuo, Y. et al. (2007). USPTO Patent Application 20070166782: Biosynthesis of isopentenyl pyrophosphate.
Keller, E.F. (2005). The century beyond the gene. Journal of the Biosciences, 30(1), 101108.
Kumar, S., & Rai, A.K. (2007). Synthetic biology: The intellectual property puzzle. Texas Law Review, 85, 17451768.
Lind, D., & Barham, E. (2004). The social life of the tortilla: Food, cultural politics, and contested commodification. Agriculture and Human Values, 21(1), 4760.
Mack, G.S. (2004). Can complexity be commercialized? Nature Biotechnology, 22(10), 12231229.
Marguet, P., Balagadde, P., Tan, C., & You, L. (2007). Biology by design: Reduction and synthesis of cellular components and behaviour. Journal of the Royal Society Interface, URL (accessed October 2008):
Maurer, S. (2006). Reporter notes on Synthetic Biology/Economics Workshop: Choosing the Right IP Policy. UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy, 31 March 2006. URL (consulted):
Marx, K. (1887). Capital, vol. 1: The process of production of capital. Trans. S. Moore and E. Aveling, Ed. F. Engels. Moscow: Progress Publishers. URL (accessed December 2007): Marx/Engels Internet Archive
McAfee, K. (2003). Neoliberalism on the molecular scale: Economies and genetic reductionism in biotechnology battles. Geoforum, 34(2), 203219.
Mirowski, P., & Sent, E.M. (2002). Science bought and sold: Essays in the economics of science. Chicago: U Chicago Press.
Mirowski, P., & Sent, E.M. (2007). The commercialization of science and the response of STS. In Hackett, E., Amsterdamska, O., Wajcman, J., & Lynch, M. (Eds.), Handbook of science and technology studies, 635–689. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Moss, L. (2003). What genes can't do. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Nature Biotechnology (2005). Recent patent applications in systems biology. Nature Biotechnology, 23(8), 939.
Nature (2005). In pursuit of systems. Nature, 435 (5 May), 1.
Nowotny, H., Scott, P., & Gibbons, M. (2001). Re-thinking science: Knowledge and the public in an age of uncertainty. London: Polity Press.
O'Malley, M., Powell, A., Davies, J., & Calvert, J. (2008). Knowledge-making distinctions in synthetic biology. BioEssays, 30(1), 5765.
Packer, K., & Webster, A. (1996). Patenting culture in science: Reinventing the scientific wheel of credibility. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 21(4), 427453.
Palsson, B. (2000). The challenges of in silico biology. Nature Biotechnology, 18(11),11471150.
Parry, B.C. (2008). Entangled exchange: Reconceptualising the characterisation and practice of bodily commodification. Geoforum, 39(3), 11331144.
Pearson, H. (2006). What is a gene? Nature, 441(25 May), 399401.
Pottage, A. (2007). The socio-legal implications of the new biotechnologies. Annual Review of Law and Social Science, 3, 321344.
Pottage, A., & Sherman, B. (2007). Organisms and manufactures: On the history of plant inventions. Melbourne University Law Review, 31(2), 539568.
Powell, A., & Dupré, J.A. (forthcoming). From molecules to systems: The importance of looking both ways. Studies in the History and Philosophy of the Biological and Biomedical Sciences.
Powell, A., O'Malley, M.A., Müller-Wille, S., Calvert, J., & Dupré, J.A. (2007). Disciplinary baptisms: A comparison of the naming stories of genetics, molecular biology, genomics and systems biology. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 29, 532.
Rai, A., & Boyle, J. (2007). Synthetic biology: caught between property rights, the public domain, and the commons. PLoS Biology, 5, URL (consulted October 2008):
Richardson, R.C., & Stephan, A. (2007). Emergence. Biological Theory, 2(1), 9196.
Russell, J. (2006). Optimata, Entelos win simulation patents. Bio-IT World, 26 January. URL (accessed October 2008): 2006/january/01-26-06-news-biosimulation?Itemid=19924&terms=optimata
Stallman, R. (2007). Why ‘open source’ misses the point of free software. Philosophy of the GNU Project, Free Software Foundation, 24 September. URL (accessed October 2008):
Schaffer, S. (2003). Enlightenment brought down to earth. History of Science, 41(3), 257268.
Thackray, A. (Ed.) (1998). Private science: Biotechnology and the rise of the molecular sciences. Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania Press.
Sharp, L.A. (2000). The commodification of the body and its parts. Annual Review of Anthropology, 29, 287328.
Slaughter, S., & Rhoades, G. (1996). The emergence of a competitiveness research and development policy coalition and the commercialisation of academic science and technology. Science, Technology and Human Values, 21(3), 303339.
Uehling, M.D. (2003). Model patient. Bio-IT World 15 December. URL (accessed October 2008)
Van Regenmortel, M.H.V. (2004). Reductionism and complexity in molecular biology. EMBO Reports, 5(11), 10161020.
Westerhoof, H.V., & Kell, D.B. (2007). The methodologies of systems biology. In Boogerd, F., Bruggeman, F.J., Hofmeyr, J.-H.S., & Westerhoff, H.V. (Eds.), Systems biology: Philosophical foundations. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
Wynne, B. (2005). Reflexing complexity: Post-genomic knowledge and reductionist returns in public science. Theory, Culture & Society, 22(5), 6794.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

  • ISSN: 1745-8552
  • EISSN: 1745-8560
  • URL: /core/journals/biosocieties
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed