Monday's Supreme Court decision granting federal patent protection to new forms of life clears the way for a wide variety of new man-made organisms to do everything from grow wheat in arid lands to mine metals in inaccessible parts of the earth.
The landmark decision also means that the companies making the new life forms will find it faster and easier to market new foods and chemicals that are cheaper to produce and easier to dispose of. It even means that industry can hasten the day when it begins to lose its dependence on oil to make such everyday chemicals as plastics and antifreeze.
"The rising price of oil has had a lot to do with the rise of this industry," said Nelson Schneider, vice president of E. F. Hutton Co., one of the leading authorities on the use of organisms to create new products. "The major impetus behind all this research has been to find alternates to oil to create new products."
The Supreme Court decision granted patent protection to General Electric Co. for an organism that eats oil, a major new method in fighting oil spills.
Already being tested by mining companies are organisms that literally eat metals such as magnesium, manganese, iron, cobalt, nickel and copper. One metal company has run tests in which it blows bacteria into low-grade copper ores where the bacteria produce an enzyme that eats away salts in the ore, leaving behind an almost pure form of copper.
Thus, low-grade ores that cannot be mined economically or lie in rough terrain where conventional mining techniques are hard to use can be tapped for their metals. It even means that some metals can be mined in such pure form that the need for smelting would be eliminated.
According to the U.S. Patent Office, there are at least 100 applications pending that involve new life forms, all of them awaiting the Supreme Court decision. Six applications filed by Eli Lilly Co. and Genentech of San Francisco seek to patent an organism that grows human insulin to treat diabetes; another by Genentech would seek patent protection to create a hormone made by the pituitary gland that could be used to prevent certain types of dwarfism.
There are as many as eight patent applications pending to use new organism to create different types of interferon, a protein created in small amounts by the human body to fight viral infections. Ahead are patent applications for organisms that make chemicals called endorphins and enkephalins, pain-killing drugs made in the brains of most animals that have never been created synthetically before.
"A host of patent appliccations will come from drug companies," Schneider said. "The competition in this field will move from red hot to white hot."
Next to drugs, chemicals may get the most benefit from the Supreme Court decision. Already pending before the Patent Office is an application from National Distillers Corp. and the Cetus Corp. of Berkeley, Calif., to produce a "bug" that ferements corn starch or corn syrup into ethanol, an alcohol that is used in such disparate products as whiskey and gasohol.
Cetus also has filed with Chevron Oil Co. and application for a patent on a bacteria that metabolizes ethylene into ethylene glycol (antifreeze) and ethylene oxide, the building block for $5 billion worth of plastics made in the U.S. every year.
"Ethylene [the starting material] can itself be fermented from alcohol in this process, so presumably we can use all this to get away from oil," said Dr. Ronald Cape, president of Cetus. "This process is more efficient and uses less energy than anything in use today."
The food industry will be a big beneficiary of the Supreme Court ruling. Research is going on in dozens of laboratories where genes are being changed to grow wheat that needs 10 percent of the water that wheat normally needs to survive. Other wheat genes are being changed to produce a wheat that has double the protein in conventional wheat.
One company has developed an organism to metabolize margarine into something "that really tastes like butter." Still another involves the use of a bacteria that makes out of ordinary glucose a plastic that has the look and feel of Saran Wrap.
"Since it's made biologically, it's biodegradable," one industry source said. "A major benefit of all this research is that the end product will be easier to get rid of."