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Alex Steffen, 1 Feb 05

The Biological Innovation for Open Society (BIOS) program has just added some major infrastructure for open source biotechnology: BioForge.

"BioForge aims to create new a mode for the cooperative invention, improvement and sharing of biological technologies. The goal of BioForge is to foster a protected commons of biological technologies that will be freely available to the worldwide inventive community under the terms of an "open source"-based license."

BioForge is explicitly modeled on SourceForge, which bills itself as "the world's largest Open Source software development website." BioForge will function as a discussion commons, information resource, and repository of data, code and software tools for the world of open biology. A FAQ is available, and BIOS is soliciting comments, suggestions and questions about BioForge in its discussion area.

Because genetic research is powered by digital tools, innovating better tools in the public domain helps move control over genetic research out of the sole hands of big corporate labs in the developed world. University research benefits from open tools. Scientists in the developing world to participate more fully in global research using open source biology. And it's quite possible that key breakthroughs in the fight against emerging diseases can come from small research groups using open biotech tools.

The importance of these sorts of tools is something to which Jim Kent can attest. Kent, a scientist at UC Santa Cruz, helped the public Human Genome Project tie its corporate rival Celera in the race to decipher the human genome, which, in turn, may have helped keep the human genome itself in the public domain. He did it by writing an open-source DNA assembler from existing pieces of free software and his own innovations. This is precisely the kind of tool which BIOS will be helping to innovate and spread freely.

But it's not just tools. BioForge hopes eventually to bring a collaborative, copyleft approach to a whole realm of solutions for making biotechnology less centralized and controlled:

  • Porting the concepts, philosophies, normative behaviours, legal mechanisms and public enthusiasm for Open Source into the vastly more challenging area of patents, and biological research and development.
  • Making new opportunities to engage the worldwide biological R&D community, empowering decentralized innovations and innovators.
  • Cooperatively prioritizing, designing, generating and sharing transformative biological technologies that can improve the ability for locally committed people to solve their own problems, and address low-margin markets or market failures.
  • Creating practical business models that can encourage the development of robust, economically viable small-to-medium enterprise formation to address neglected market opportunities.
  • Creating the social and policy initiatives to make these things happen. This must include constructive engagement in patent law reform, international genetic resource policy, and much more.
  • Generating new software innovations for cooperative technology development, making Sourceforge-like toolkits and enabling environments in which scientists and interested problem-solvers around the world can cooperate to create real and practical innovations that can be preserved for public use, empowering both public and private sector to deliver attractive solutions.
  • Pioneering new, cost-free public access databasing, parsing and informatics-rich technologies to render the massive, complex and opaque world of patents and IP into a transparent and stimulating structure for the public good, as originally intended by framers of patent systems.

    All in all, the potential here for change, from shifting intellectual property rules to empowering science in the developing world, is incredible. Watch this trend.

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