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Ownership and sharing in synthetic biology: a 'diverse ecology' of the open and the proprietary?

Synthetic biology is in the process of inventing itself and its ownership regimes. There are currently two dominant approaches to ownership and sharing in the field. The work of the J. Craig Venter Institute is grounded in molecular biology and in gene patenting. Parts-based approaches to synthetic biology, in contrast, are inspired by engineering, open source software and distributed innovation, and they are building new communities to help further this agenda. Despite these differences, the two approaches make very similar use of informational and computational metaphors. They both also have a place in a vision for the future of synthetic biology as a ‘diverse ecology’ of the open and the proprietary. It remains to be seen whether such a diverse ecology will be sustainable, whether synthetic biology will go down the patenting route taken by previous biotechnologies or whether different forms of ownership and sharing will emerge. Which path is taken will depend on the success of synthetic biology in achieving both its technical objectives and its social innovations.