Interview: Richard Jefferson discusses
open source biology
11, 2005 from
Talk of the Nation/Science Friday
jump links: Linux ,
GPL , Apache
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
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
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...
Dr. JEFFERSON: Yeah.
FLATOW: ...you 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
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'
Dr. JEFFERSON: G'day, Ira. Good to
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.
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 www.bios.net, that's the new
initiative, or cambia.org is the institution.
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 bioforge.net. 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 bioforge.net is an opportunity to build a community
of innovations. And bios.net is a broader community in which you can discuss
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
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
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
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: ...be 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
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.
FLATOW: If you missed any of the
resources, go over to
sciencefriday.com. We have SCIENCE
FRIDAY's Kids' Connection. We make free teaching material. Just click on the
teachers button. Also you can download back editions of SCIENCE FRIDAY to
your iPod and listen on RealAudio.
I'm Ira Flatow in New York.
Copyright ©1990-2005 National Public Radio®. All rights reserved. No quotes
from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without
attribution to National Public Radio. This transcript may not be reproduced
in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further
information, please contact NPR's Rights and Reuse Associate at (202)