Catalyzing Biotechnology: Diamond v. Chakrabarty

Diamond v. Chakrabarty is a landmark Supreme Court decision in regards to life science patents. In 1971, microbiologist Ananda Chakrabarty genetically engineered Pseudomonas bacteria to metabolize oil by using plasmids to transform bacteria with genes necessary for oil metabolism. Though before his work, oil metabolizing bacteria existed, Chakrabarty discovered a genetic crosslinking method that significantly improved upon the metabolism of oil by two orders of magnitude. Chakrabarty's genetically engineered bacteria could metabolize roughly 66% of the hydrocarbons in an average oil spill. 

Chakrabarty applied for a utility patent on his genetically modified microorganisms, but was denied intellectual property rights on the grounds that U.S. patent law precludes living organisms. Chakrabarty appealed this decision and the U.S. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals overturned the decision, granting Chakrabarty patent rights. This appeals decision was then appealed by the Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks, Sydney Diamond, reaching the Supreme Court in 1980. 

The legal question at hand would set landmark precedent for biotechnology patents: 
Does Section 101 of Title 35 of the United States Code include living organisms as patentable subject matter?
In a 5-4 decision, the court decided that yes, living organisms can be patented under U.S. patent law, affirming the decision of the U.S. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals, and granting Chakrabarty patent rights. The court detailed that though the discovery of naturally occurring phenomena and substances is not patentable, the creation of modified, non-naturally occurring substances is indeed eligible

This is an interesting decision in that it points towards the limits of patent law in that the law does not necessarily foresee significant fields of innovation. That said, case law alone may not be sufficient for optimal patent law in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. There are many challenges unique to innovation in the life sciences, one of them being regulatory hurdles and costs such as clinical trials. This provokes a couple of questions - should the law be tailored towards industry? How can we make make patent law more adaptable to the dynamic nature of innovation and ensure that it continues to facilitate innovation despite being blind to future developments?


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  1. Hey Umeet,

    Great Job. I know class we discussed how everything under the sun is patentable. But patenting a living organism is really questionable. Does this mean that if man were to colonize Mars and find some other microorganisms in Mars, man would be able to patent it under law? What's the difference between a natural microorganism vs a genetically modified organism? Even genetically modified organisms are made from actual microorganisms. So its curious how one is patentable but the other is not. I do agree that this case is important in that it stretches the realm of patent law.

    1. Great questions! I think if you look at other life science patent cases it get really tricky as to what's natural vs modified. If you look at my post on Myriad Genetics, you can see that the court deliberates this a lot and pretty much decides that if it occurs in nature, without the intervention of man, then it is natural. There is a necessity of man made intervention to make a living organism patentable.

  2. I think this was an amazing post to read about. I never thought about having living organisms patented. If "everything manmade under the sun" can be patented, I do believe Ananda Chakrabarty has a right to patent these microorganisms because Ananda was the one to genetically engineer the bacterial to make it of use, such as in an oil spill. This is a huge case, and it is important to note that it was only in favor of Chakrabarty by one vote. In the 5 - 4 decision, the creation of modified, non-naturally occurring substances can be patented. Good read, and nice picture!