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Innovators Under 35 | 2019

It’s part of our ethos that technology can and should be a force for good. In these profiles you’ll find people employing innovative methods to treat disease, to fight online harassment, and to create the next big battery breakthrough.

The dispute over valuable patents to the gene-editing tool CRISPR is back on, and the belligerents are once again the Broad Institute of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the University of California,...

The dispute: It’s all about money, power, and scientific credit. In short, it’s about who really invented CRISPR gene editing, a simple way to modify the DNA inside cells that’s swept the world and could be the basis for a new generation of gene-therapy treatments.

The sides: In one corner, UC Berkeley, where biochemist Jennifer Doudna was part of a team that in 2012 described a CRISPR editor able to zap DNA in a test tube. In the other, the Broad Institute of MIT /Harvard, a genomics juggernaut whose star scientist, Feng Zhang, was among the first to use CRISPR to edit human DNA.

The news: This week, the US Patent Office opened an “interference” proceeding. That means it’s going to take a bundle of patents and patent applications it thinks cover the same inventions and, following a court-like legal proceeding, potentially shift rights around among the feuding parties.

It’s not the first interference involving CRISPR patents. In a previous round, the Broad Institute prevailed when the patent office ruled that making CRISPR work inside human cells—not only in a test tube—was a distinct and separate invention. That meant Broad’s key patents stayed in place. For the time being.

Now that it's clear that CRISPR in human cells is its own thing, a new challenge begins. The patent office needs to sort out a thicket of competing and conflicting claims and figure out who the invention should belong to.  

According to case documents, it’s up to the Broad Institute to avoid further trouble (and lawyer fees) by initiating settlement agreements with Berkeley. So far the parties haven't been able to reach a truce.

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Space

Is there life on Mars? NASA’s Curiosity rover has detected the highest level of methane gas ever found on the planet, offering the tantalizing possibility that there might be some form of life beneath...

The news: Last week, the rover recorded a methane reading of 21 parts per billion at Gale Crater. It’s three times the last record, which Curiosity recorded back in 2013. 

Why it’s exciting: Methane is usually produced by living things, so it could be a sign of microbial life on the Red Planet. Don’t get carried away, though; it can also come from rocks. “With our current measurements, we have no way of telling if the methane source is biology or geology, or even ancient or modern,” said Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center.

Backup: A follow-up experiment taken last night by Curiosity found that the methane reading had dropped back to the usual level, NASA said. This suggests it’s a source that comes and goes. However, in a stroke of luck, two satellites (the Mars Express and the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter) were observing the crater at roughly the same time the rover took the initial reading. Mars Express was the first probe to spot methane on the planet back in 2003. The new satellite data should help researchers confirm this historic reading and its source.

However, finding out more about the source—and whether it really is life, ancient or current—will require new instruments to be sent to the planet’s surface. So we’ve got a wait on our hands. 

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