Small modifications to the genetic code of a living organism can already be patented just like any other invention. This legal protection makes it possible for companies to specify how the code will subsequently be used and to recapture their large investments and R&D expenses in the form of licensing fees. For years now, courtrooms all over the world have been scenes of legal disputes about a valuable asset: the genetic information stored in DNA. And multinational corporations like Monsanto have sued farmers who are claimed to have planted their fields with unlicensed seeds.
Year after year, new technologies have rapidly increased the speed at which DNA is being sequenced and, at the same time, substantially reduced the cost of doing so. Legal regulations have a hard time keeping up when it comes to the question of who actually owns the genetic information of living creatures and can stipulate how it’s used. But since we’ve now reached the point at which we can not only read DNA codes but write them as well, we’re faced with fundamental moral questions that we as a society have to answer as quickly as possible.