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Who Owns the Rights to Our Germs?

Each of us have more microbes on and in our bodies than we have cells of our own. Some are beneficial; others we’d like to do without. Then there are millions that are neither, but may be profitable someday. Sound ridiculous? Consider this scenario:

IMAGINE a scientist gently swabs your left nostril with a Q-tip and finds that your nose contains hundreds of species of bacteria. That in itself is no surprise; each of us is home to some 100 trillion microbes. But then she makes an interesting discovery: in your nose is a previously unknown species that produces a powerful new antibiotic. Her university licenses it to a pharmaceutical company; it hits the market and earns hundreds of millions of dollars. Do you deserve a cut of the profits?

It is a tricky question, because it defies our traditional notions of property and justice. You were not born with the germ in your nose; at some point in your life, it infected you. On the other hand, that microbe may be able to grow and reproduce only in a human nose. You provided it with an essential shelter. And its antibiotics may help keep you healthy, by killing disease-causing germs that attempt to invade your nose.

Bioethicists are wrangling with the notion of microbe ownership. Carl Zimmer, whose navel microbes have already been posted at Neatorama, writes about the issues involved at the New York Times. Link -via The Loom

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Date
December 5th, 2011

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Stranger to the World

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