Interview: Richard Jefferson discusses open source biology
jump links: Linux , GPL , Apache
NPRFebruary 11, 2005 from Talk of the Nation/Science Friday

IRA FLATOW, host: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Perhaps topping the list of important techniques in genetic engineering are a set of tools, one used to insert genes into a genome and, two, the tools to help figure out in which cells those inserted genes ended up. These tools help you slice and dice the genome and put in new genetic information to create a unique product. But most of those tools are controlled by a few big biotech companies, some companies like Bayer life sciences or Syngenta or Monsanto. And while they might be willing to license those tools to university researchers, for instance, they're not so open to handing those tools over for free to people actually planning to make seeds for farmers in developing countries where they can't afford it.

Well, in a study published this week in the journal Nature, a group of researchers in Australia report that they have been able to develop alternative tools for doing some of these key genetic engineering processes, methods that they say don't infringe on any of those patents owned by the big guys. And they're offering to make those tools freely available, free to others to use or expand on, sort of the biological equivalent of open source software, you know, like Linux and these other open software programs. You can use them for free. You can improve them, but you have to put them back out so other people can use them.

Here to talk about it is Richard Jefferson. He's chairman, chief executive officer, chief scientist of CAMBIA, a non-profit biotech research organization based in Canberra, Australia. He joins us by phone from there, where it's early Saturday morning.

Thanks for getting up early, Dr. Jefferson.

Dr. RICHARD JEFFERSON (Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, CAMBIA): Oh, my pleasure, Ira. Thanks for inviting me.

FLATOW: Why is this important to get the--to have these tools available?

Dr. JEFFERSON: Well, probably because, if we're going to solve any of the problems--or the problems are going to be solved that are really aching for a lot of the world, that part of the world has to solve the problems themselves. Yeah.

FLATOW: And so if they wait for others to give them the tools, that's not going to happen?

Dr. JEFFERSON: Yeah. It's not even just give them the tools, it's give them the capability to solve it themselves. When you talked about open source being basically tools for free, the real issue is that they can be, as you also alluded to, designed and built and tuned by a large community. So the power of the open source concept isn't so much the cost, it's the community.

FLATOW: And what could you do with these tools?

Dr. JEFFERSON: Well, basically we looked at the technologies that were existing now and we decided that we first had to study the patent landscape. We have a very large database here. A team over the last five years has developed probably the fastest patent database in the world and we've been looking very hard at the structure of the language in patent grants to try to understand, how could we craft a methodology that would not infringe on other people's legitimate rights but would give a completely new canvas to work upon.

FLATOW: And these patents are patents for--What?--bacteria that splice up the genome?

Dr. JEFFERSON: Yeah, exactly. It's for--patents, remember, can be on a lot more than stuff. It can be more than bacteria or mousetraps. It can actually be a whole process. It can be a method and, in fact, so many components of this method in which you take a soil bacterium called agrobacterium that naturally lives with plants, which forms, under normal conditions, a pathogenic relationship. Basically it makes galls, like tumors, on plants. Now that's a normal process, been going on for millions of years. And it was discovered that in that process, the bacteria are capable of transferring part of its own genome into a plant and re-engineering the plant, in fact, to feed it and clothe, it as it were. And anyway, we looked at that and realized that the patents claim all aspects of methodology, the materials, the tricks, the tunings, and it became what we call a patent thicket, with literally hundreds of patents. So it's not so much that it's dominated by one multinational, though that can be irritating; it's that there are so many patents involved that there's massive insecurities and very often it only takes one out of this giant Tower of Babel of patents to be denied to stop the whole thing from working.

FLATOW: So you could take that whole Babel and make a sort of a different version of it that works as well and then make it into an open source? Is that a patent?

Dr. JEFFERSON: Yeah. Basically we think we could do something that works better. The downside of the existing method, as I mentioned, agrobacterium is actually naturally a pathogen. That means that it causes diseases in plants. And they've had to disarm it to make it work well. When I say `they,' we, too. I mean, I've been involved in this for over 20 years. And to disarm the plant, certainly you no longer make tumors in the plant, but the plant knows it's being infected with something bad and it responds with stress. We decided to try to convince or coax some very benign bacteria that naturally live in a symbiotic relationship with plants and ask them, basically by minor adjustments, if they can transfer genes into plants. And the surprising and exciting observation is that, yes, they can.

FLATOW: So can I buy these bacteria that you have given as open source? Would be that the correct terminology, the bacteria now are open source, that you can use for research?

Dr. JEFFERSON: Well, it's more that the methodology and the community is open source. The bacteria, per se, yes, of course, you can get strains if you're a legitimate institution and you sign the necessary legal documents, and the documents would involve that you agree to observe biosafety and environmental safety regulations. We're certainly not going to be giving these out to people who don't agree to the standards of public health and maintenance. But it's not just the bacteria. You actually acquire the right to be part of the community making it better, so this is not simply a one-off, `Oh, here it is. It's free,' and assuming that that's what's happening. What we're really doing is building a community of science.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255, talking with Richard Jefferson.

Have you had--been successful and people taking advantage of the tools that you're making accessible to them? Are there any cases yet?

Dr. JEFFERSON: Yeah, there are. It's--the publication came out yesterday, Ira, and we've already been swamped with both e-mails and telephone and in-person requests. It turns out that this has been a need that's been very sorely felt by a lot of people in the science community and especially in the development community. There are countless excellent scientists totally committed in the developing world or, in fact, in small and medium enterprises in the US and the UK and Europe, Australia, that are dying to get out there and start innovating on behalf of smaller markets instead of just the big-margin innovations.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255. What kinds of plants might we see coming out of this? Give us an example of where this might head to.

Dr. JEFFERSON: Well, this is--in fact, part of the beauty of open source is its lack of prescriptiveness from one guy like me or one person. It's really a matter that if people have needs that are legitimate and they think that they're not being served by existing technology, the power of open source is the ability to craft the technology. In the very intro, Ira, you mentioned the importance of sharing your improvements back with the community and a friend of mine, Yochai Benkler at Yale, has written a marvelous article called Sharing Nicely, in which he looks at the economics of innovation, and it seems to be that we actually get faster and better innovation in an industry by sharing than we do by competing. And so what's going to be coming out is capability of people to tune it to their needs. So instead of us talking about science done for the Third World, we should rethink as science done by the Third World.

FLATOW: And there's nothing to prevent big companies from taking these tools also and using them and putting them back on.

Dr. JEFFERSON: No. No, of course not. In fact, that's a very attractive scenario, because some of these companies are filled with extraordinarily talented scientists. What we'd like to do is, you know, encourage them to use this business model, this new way of doing business, and what they would give back to the community is some of the know-how of those scientists in making these tools work better.

FLATOW: Now I'm thinking about, you know, in the software community, you have people who have full-time jobs doing, you know, software development, but in their own time, they're hacking and making new kinds of, you know, little tools they release on the Internet. And I'm not talking about the people who do the worms and stuff, but these little kinds of tools that would be...


FLATOW: know, the equivalent in the biotechnology world.

Dr. JEFFERSON: Yeah. Well, you know, that's a phenomenon that--innovation economists call excess capacity. Because, you know, when 5:00 hits, your computer doesn't just turn into a pumpkin. It's still there. So you have to ask what's the opportunity in biological sciences for the same excess capacity? Well, the taxpayers are doing it. The taxpayers have made that excess capacity happen. It's called the public sector. And we've all lost our way in the public sector. Instead of looking at little cheesy clones in the private sector, we should be keeping our eye on the public good. Because we are the very excess capacity that the non-pumpkin computer becomes.

FLATOW: You're based in Australia. Are there other open source biotechnology projects or are you basically so new that you're it?

Dr. JEFFERSON: Well, I wouldn't say that we're so new that we're it, but we're pretty near the cutting edge of what's happening. Australia is looking like it's going to become one of the beachheads for this new approach, not least because we're a small country in the middle of nowhere and our best opportunity for success as a nation is to pull together and to try to leverage the intellectual contributions of a very large number of people, though as you can hear from my accent, I'm not originally from this part of the world.

FLATOW: No. I didn't hear you say `G'day' once.

Dr. JEFFERSON: G'day, Ira. Good to see you.

FLATOW: Where's--you know, you're new, you're, you know, still starting out. Where do you get development money? You know, who's interested in giving you money to start out, to start these ideas up?

Dr. JEFFERSON: Well, I'd say the most important has been the car washes and the bake sales, Ira. It has been difficult, but Rockefeller Foundation has been stunningly visionary in helping us. For the last 13 years, they've been continually supporting us, initially to help troubleshoot their rice programs throughout Asia and Africa and Latin America. In fact, the reason that our institute--our institute sounds so grand, it was originally just me--moved to Australia 13 years ago was so we could be in the same proximity of the world's rice eaters and rice researchers. And it proved to a fabulous move. It's a beautiful place to do research and have a quality life where you can actually think outside the box. So Rockefeller has supported us continuously, but not massively. They've been conservative and make sure that we've sung for our supper, but this last year, they decided that the direction we were going with our mastery of intellectual property and our focus on crafting a community of scientists rather than an exclusionary community, meaning no community at all, they decided to pop $1 million down to help us and since then we've also been licensing our own technology.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. JEFFERSON: So we have pretty good street cred, Ira. Those are the tech...

FLATOW: Well, people who want to get in touch with you, how--do you have a Web page?

Dr. JEFFERSON: Yeah, I wish we had a PayPal link. But, you bet. If you look at, that's the new initiative, or is the institution.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. JEFFERSON: But the BIOS site is a very exciting one and I would hope that some of your listeners might have a chance to take a look at it and be a part of the community.

FLATOW: What would they see there? What makes it so exciting?

Dr. JEFFERSON: Well, there's a picture of me that really makes me look a lot fatter than I am. There's--the largest patent database of its kind that's cost-free in the world. It's a marvelous resource if you want to start understanding the world of the unfree.


Dr. JEFFERSON: There's also a remarkable access site called We've basically created with a remarkable software company in California called CollabNet a software tool in which scientists around the world can collaborate to create new technologies and share them worldwide. Previously there was no mechanism to do this kind of collaboration except through archaic snail mail and, you know, the best of intentions at meetings. So is an opportunity to build a community of innovations. And is a broader community in which you can discuss this issue.

FLATOW: Talking with Richard Jefferson, chairman and executive officer, chief scientist, I think chief cook and bottle washer of the CAMBIA...

Dr. JEFFERSON: There you go.

FLATOW: ...a non-profit biotech research organization in Australia, on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

So where do you go from here? I mean, you just keep, you know, getting resources, you make more of--and hope that, you know, people take notice?

Dr. JEFFERSON: Well, exactly. But the lucky feature is that the quality press is paying attention because there are urgent needs out there. You know we've got--What?--over two billion people earn less than $2 a day, but every time you see a picture, Ira, of a--not you necessarily but any of your listeners--you see a picture of someone in Africa, India, wherever else, you see a picture of a hungry person or a poor person. But what you rarely think about is that they're a creative person, and they are. And so the issue is we have this massive untapped source of innovation, which is normal human beings that want to solve problems, and so our job is limitless. And our job is not to fix the Third World. Our job is to remove the constraints to their own creativity, and that's a huge ask. It means policy, economics, not just molecular biology. So Bioforge is not just about biotech, Ira; it's about all sorts of biology.

FLATOW: So if you have some smart guy at his PC in the Third World and he comes up with--takes your tools, comes up with a brand-new, you know, product, a strain of rice or something, can he patent that and then make some money on it?

Dr. JEFFERSON: Well, there's a lot of ways to solve it in our current thinking. One of them is to make a distinction between the tools of innovation, which we feel are an absolute fundamental human right, and the fruits of innovation, for which we can easily accommodate proprietary sort of worldviews, like the one you just articulated. So let's just imagine that this young lady does develop an improved rice strain that she thinks has the cat's meow properties and she wants to market it with her own trademark and her own plant breeder's varieties, I don't see that that in any way suppresses the ability of other people to develop other rice varieties. And that's the real key. As long as it doesn't suppress free and open both competition and innovation, we see no problem with that. We don't even see a problem with Monsanto or Syngenta using our technologies and producing new strains of corn or soybean. The real issue is not suppressing other people from providing alternatives and not suppressing other people from developing small, medium enterprise that can be so exciting to us.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255. Listen, we've got a quick call from James in St. Louis. Hi, James, quickly.

JAMES (Caller): I guess this builds on what you're just talking about, even though I kind of missed where you left off or began. What protections are built in so that this open source biotechnology or sort of a creative commons idea can't be picked up by a corporation and then patented against the people who developed it or who would otherwise like to share it?

Dr. JEFFERSON: Well, thanks, James. That's a terrific question. The basic issue is that it's not a creative commons issue. It's a protected commons. And that protection is built into our thinking. In other words, we are not anti-intellectual property or anti-patents. We're very much for using them wisely and much more discreetly. But in a sense, a patent license is the very stick that goes with the carrot of the technology that says share nicely or you don't get to be part of the community. And the patent licensing and the opportunity to sue for infringement, which is, of course, not a really delightful opportunity, has to always be maintained as part of our structure, just like the copyright is essential to making the GPL that guides the development of open source software.

FLATOW: And, but, of course, once you get into that fight, those big guys have a lot of lawyers.

 Dr. JEFFERSON: Yeah, but you know what's interesting about that. Look at the open source software community, or what started out as the free software community. The Linux--the license that guides the development of Linux is called the GPL, or GNU Public License. And you know what? The total amount of money made on Linux is in the billions and billions of dollars, and do you know how many times that license has been litigated? Zero. Because they have an extraordinarily bright counsel named Eben Moglen at Columbia University in New York who, whenever there's threat of litigation, just picks up his briefcase, goes over and talks to these people and gets them to understand how it's in their best interest not to. That's the beauty of this. It's not about confrontation. It's about awakening people to what's in their own self-interest and getting communities going. And it's worked for Linux. It's worked for the literally tens of thousands of other software programs, including the great Apache Web Server, which drives most of the World Wide Web, which was developed by our colleague, Brian Behlendorf, who we're working with on the Bioforge. These are innovations that are of staggering importance to the economy and yet, by and large, the license guiding them has not been litigated. We think that we can do the same thing. You don't have to be confrontatory to be successful.

FLATOW: Well, Richard, good luck to you. And we'll...

Dr. JEFFERSON: Thanks.

FLATOW: checking in and thanks for staying up--getting up early and (unintelligible).

Dr. JEFFERSON: Well, it was a good time to get a cup of coffee, Ira. Thank you so much for giving me the chance.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Richard Jefferson, chairman, chief executive officer, chief scientist--I think he turns the lights on and off also--at CAMBIA, a non-profit biotech research organization in Canberra, Australia.


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I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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