Microbial Commons

MICROB-COM- Microbial Commons: Building a legal instrument for farmers rights on agricultural microbial resources

Marie Sklodwoska-Curie Actions Individual Fellowship Grant ID 894188 

Experienced Researcher: David Kothamasi

Supervisor: Saskia Vermeylen

Host Institute: Strathclyde Centre for Environmental Law and Governance, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, G4 0LT, United Kingdom  


MICROB-COM makes a critical evaluation of the appropriateness of the existing patent regime on agricultural microbes and, drawing from developments in International Environmental Law recognising the rights of nature, has explored the need for amendment of existing patent laws on agricultural microbes. 

Microorganisms are master chemists and engineers of nature. They perform a variety of activities with significant economic benefits. They are of particular importance in agriculture through their roles in nutrient cycling, protection against crop pathogens and pests, production of plant growth hormones and alleviating stress in crops. The benefits from microbial function have made microbes attractive targets for patents. 

The first patent on a living organism was claimed by Louis Pasteur for the isolation and use of purified (aseptic cultures) yeast in 1873 (Patent No. 141072 of the US Patent Office). However, this patent was an exception. Patents were neither claimed nor granted over living resources as these were considered as creations of God/nature and were a part of the common heritage of humankind. Apart from arguments of ethics and morality, the reason patents were not granted on life-forms was because living organisms and metabolic processes were not considered to qualify as human inventions. This scenario changed when the Judges in Diamond v Chakrabarty 447 US 303 equated the isolation of a microorganism to an aseptic culture plate with the term ‘manufacture’. This decision laid the foundations for patenting of life-forms and the biotechnology industry. 

The agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual property rights (TRIPS) allows member states to exclude plants and animal resources, but not microbes, from patenting with an alternate sui-generis system of protection. This can have impact on global food security because microorganisms are of particular importance in agriculture through their roles in nutrient cycling and plant growth promotion.