The Supreme Court passed up yesterday an opportunity to review an unpdecented ruling that a person can patent living things, choosing instead to return the case to a divided appeals tribunal.

The justices nullified the ruling and sent the case back to the U.S. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals "for further consideration in light of" a decision they announced in another patent case last Thursday.

In that decision the court ruled an inventor can not patent a method for identifying a limited category of useful but conventional applications when a mathematical formula is the only novel feature.

Sources said they were uncertain how the appeals tribunal will interpret the phrase "in light of," but speculated that it may reverse its 3 to 2 holding last Oct. 6 in a case principally affecting the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.

The October case involved a strain of bacteria found in certain Arizona soil. Upjohn Co. scientists isolated and purified the micro-organisms under carefully controlled laboratory conditions and then used them to prepare an antibiotic tradenamed Lincocin (lincomycin).

The scientists applied for a patent on the tiny forms of life, intending to assign their rights to the pharmaceutical manufacturer.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejected the application. It ruled that in allowing patent monopolies for new and useful discoveries, inventions, and improvements of machines, processes and compositions of matter, Congress did not intend to permit patents on living organisms.

The government asked the Supreme Court to reverse the ruling. If allowed to stand, the Justice Department argued, it would open "an enormous range" of living things to patent monopolies.

Other court actions. Low-Cost Life Insurance

In New York State, savings banks sell life insurance that is inexpensive, partly because it is merchandised over the counter, by mail and by phone rather than by salesmen who earn commissions, and also because the termination rate is low. But a state law prohibits sales of Savings Bank Life Insurance (SBLI) to persons who neither residen nor regularly work in the state.

After a bank refused to sell a $30,000 SBLI policy to a New Jersey man, Consumers Union, the nonprofit testing organization, filed a suit charg-that the law violated the provision of the Consitution barring a state from abridging "the privileges or immunities" of citizens of other states.

A panel of three federal judges disagreed.

The Supreme Court, in a 9-to-0 decision last Thursday, invoked the "privileges and immunities" clause to invalidate an Alaska law that tried to get jobs for Alaskans by requiring private firms involved in oil and gas development to favor them over non-residents. Yesterday, the court nullified the panel's ruling in the SBLI case and sent it back "in light of" the Alaska decision Commodity Trading

Acting in a case involving the now-defunct British American Commodity Options Corp., the court let stand a decision upholding the power of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to halt trading by a dealer while it investigated a registration application.