An Illinois Biochemist Wins a Crucial Patent Fight, and a New Era of Life in a Test Tube Begins

updated 07/14/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/14/1980 01:00AM

When a normally quiet microbiologist in Illinois heard last month that the Supreme Court had ruled that new forms of life created in the laboratory could be patented, he startled his colleagues by shouting, "I won!" The outburst from Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty, 42, celebrated a significant step in the new science of genetic engineering. The court decision, in effect, safeguards the commercial rights to Chakrabarty's radical invention—a microorganism that consumes oil spills. He calls it his "bug."

Working for General Electric in Schenectady, N.Y. nine years ago, Chakrabarty created the tiny organism by fusing genetic material from four types of the bacterium Pseudomonas—a technique akin to the development of hybrid plants. His application for a patent in 1972 was rejected. GE's appeal led to the decision written by Chief Justice Warren Burger. Citing such precedents as Thomas Jefferson's 1793 Patents Act, Burger said the relevant distinction is "between the products of nature, whether living or not, and human-made inventions." He ruled that the "bug" fell into the latter category.

Chakrabarty's technique does not involve gene-splicing—the manipulation of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the genetic substance that determines hereditary traits. "I simply shuffled genes, changing bacteria that already existed," he explains. "It's like teaching your pet cat a few new tricks."

The Supreme Court decision has resulted in a flood of patent applications to recombine animal DNA with bacteria DNA to produce such products as insulin and alcohol fuel. Stanford University and the University of California, San Francisco, where many DNA breakthroughs have been made, even want to patent the recombination process itself.

Chakrabarty also is involved in DNA research. To create a "bug" that will eat toxic chlorine-based chemicals like the herbicide Agent Orange, Chakrabarty is feeding herbicide and nothing else to a flask full of bacteria. He hopes the bacteria that survive will develop an appetite for chemical poison. To encourage the mutation, Chakrabarty is giving the bugs plasmids, or rings of DNA, from bacteria that already have the capability of breaking down chlorinated compounds.

Skeptics still question recombinant DNA research, on scientific grounds as well as irrational ones (columnist George Will calls gene-splicing "a form of impudence against the cosmos"). Chakrabarty says there is no danger that his oil-eating bacteria, as yet untested outside the lab, would go on a rampage; once they eat up a spill, he predicts, they will die and become harmless food for fish. "Someday genetic technology may be used to try to create a superrace," he says. "But government can't regulate that any more than it can crime."

Even as a child in Sainthia, India, Chakrabarty, the Brahman son of a grain merchant, wanted to be a scientist. He met his wife, Krishna, also a biochemist, at the University of Calcutta, where he earned his Ph.D. After Krishna had moved to the University of California at Davis, she recalls, "Someone came from India and told me I was engaged. My father knew he had to find a man modern enough to suit my needs but old-fashioned enough to suit his." The couple married in 1965 in India and took jobs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After developing the concept that led to his bug, Chakrabarty joined GE in 1971.

Since he created the microorganism on company time, he won't make any money from the patent. He doesn't mind. He left GE last year to join the faculty at the University of Illinois School of Medicine in Chicago and says, "I don't want anyone to accuse me of working for a profit."

Almost every day—weekends and holidays included—Chakrabarty drives his 1974 Volkswagen 18 miles from his suburban Villa Park home to his lab. But when Krishna jokes, "He's gotten a lot of mileage out of that bug," she doesn't mean the one sitting in the driveway.

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