(edited 7:15pm 3-7-16, to make it clear this was a patent application not a patent)
So I got an e-mail from Jonathan Eisen this morning asking me if I had seen this tweet about a patent application regarding surveying the microbiome of the built environment:
– Ameet Pinto (@watermicrobe) March 2, 2016
And my first thought was, that’s crazy! Reading the bits of text in that picture is (as Ameet pointed out) just like reading the Materials and Methods section of the vast majority of microbiome papers… built environment or otherwise. So I skimmed through the entire application (“Monitoring and managing a facility microbiome”) and indeed that’s what it appears to be. The authors of this patent application are proposing that their “method” would involve collecting building metadata (“facility operation parameters”), and then examining the microbiome over time. In the end, they would then propose changing building parameters in order to facilitate a healthier microbiome of the building. In their words “altering the changeable facility condition by altering the facility microbiome to effectuate the desired change in the facility performance indicator.”
There are two parts of this I don’t get at all. The first, and less important, is that from what I understand of the field we’re a long way from being able to propose changes that results in a healthier building microbiome so it’s hard to see where this can accomplish that goal. But that is where a lot of this research would like to lead so maybe this is just visionary. The second, and most critical, is that I don’t understand how this is patentable. I’m no patent expert or lawyer but we’re talking here about techniques that are used by many people in the field on a regular basis. I both don’t see how this is defensible, and I wonder about the effects on research if a patent such as this were granted. Would that mean that many of the other studies on the built environment microbiome would have to close up shop or pay royalties? Where does this end?
And then this gets even more complicated because this patent application was filed by Phylagen. A company co-founded by a colleague I respect, staffed by another colleague who I also greatly respect… and my boss is one of their scientific advisers.
So I challenge any of those folks (or anyone else) to please explain to me how such a patent application as this is defensible, and how it wouldn’t be used in the future to stifle research.