In ruling that new forms of bacterial created in the laboratory can be patented, the US Supreme Court has established an important precedent for the fledgling industry of biotechnology.
It has also challenged Congress to decide whether it intends the bounds of commercialism to include the basic genetic "blueprints" of organic life.
Specifically, the 5-to-4 decision announced June 16 orders the granting of a patent on an oil-eating bacterium to microbiologist Ananda Chakravarty of the General Electric Company. Dr. Chakravarty developed the organism using modern techniques of genetic engineering.
The Department of Justice had argued that existing patent law, which allows patent protection for plant breeders, was not intended to cover the manipulation of what many biologists consider the basic mechanisms of biological evolution.
The burgeoning use of such techniques raises important social questions of safety and of how and to what extent they should be allowed and under what controls. Such matters should be decided by Congress, the government argued, adding that, until Congress acted, no patent rights should be granted.
Writing the majority opinion, Chief Justice Warren Burger acknowledged that Congress can decide this matter."But, until Congress takes such action," he noted, "this court must construe the language of [the law] as it is -- the language . . . fairly embraces respondent's invention."