The Supreme Court has ruled that life forms created in the laboratory by genetic engineering may be patented like any other invention. It was a great victory for those who are trying to develop new microorganisms for the marketplace.
The case that decided it concerned General Electric, which had asked for a patent on a bug it had developed to eat oil spills.
As soon as the decision was handed down, the offices of patent attorneys in Washington were jammed with genetic engineers trying to protect their creations.
I dropped in on one of the larger law firms. The waiting room was filled with people all holding glass jars on their laps.
"What do you have in the bottle?" I asked one man.
"It's a bacterium that eats condominiums," he said proudly. "It starts in the basement and just keeps eating away until the building collapses. Then it feeds on the rubble until there is nothing left."
"Why would you want to develop a microorganism to eat condominiums?"
"I didn't start out to invent it. I was working on bacteria that would feed on manhole covers and something went wrong when I spliced a gene. I'm sure someone will have a use for it. But I want to be protected because you never know when another scientist will come up with the same thing."
The man sitting next to him was talking to his jar.
"Now behave yourself or I won't give you any sugared water when we get home."
I couldn't see anything in the bottle, but I assumed a microbe was there.
"What are you planning to patent?" I asked.
He threw his coat over the jar.
"Wouldn't you like to know," he said with great suspicion.
"I swear I wont tell anyone."
He smiled and whispered to me, "It's a microbe that eats the bacteria which feed on oil spills."
"What a breakthrough!" I exclaimed. "How did you ever think of it?"
"I didn't. The Westinghouse people asked me to develop it. They're not going to let GE become No. 1 in the genetic engineering business."
A scientist in the next chair was studying a glass slide under a microscope and taking notes. He was very annoyed when I disturbed him.
"What do you have on the slide?" I asked.
"You sure you want to know?"
I said I was sure.
"Take off your shirt," he said.
I did and handed it to him.
He took an eye dropper and squeezed it onto the collar. I watched in amazement as the collar turned pure white.
"Does it eat dirt?" I asked.
"Only on shirt collars. You won't ever have to use detergent again to stop ring-around-the collar."
"When did you develop it?"
"Several years ago, but I wasn't about to reveal the results until I could patent it."
The last person I talked to was a man wearing a white mask, rubber gloves and rubber boots.
"And pray tell, sir, what do you have in your jar?"
"I'm not sure," he said. "It can either cure arthiritis or wipe out the human race."
"It sound like it has great possibilities."
"It certainly does. That's why I want to license it before it gets in the public domain."