Genome Commons

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= The Genome Commons and Genome Commons Navigators are open resources I propose to assist with personal genome interpretation. [1]


Background at

Info via Steven Brenner <brenner -at-> or Reece Hart <reece -at->


"Basic scientific research is often viewed as a public good: a non-depletable, non-rival resource that exists in the public domain. The vast collection of genomic data generated since the Human Genome Project, however, belies this description. This valuable resource, though generally accessible to researchers worldwide, is governed by a complex set of rules that have evolved over the past two decades. As such, the “genome commons” more closely resembles a common pool resource described by Elinor Ostrom than a public good." (


1. David Bollier:

The genome as a Commons

David Bollier, of the On the Commons blog, discusses The Common Thread, John Sulston’s account of his part in the public project that sequenced the genome:

His book provides a nuanced defense of treating knowledge of the genome as a commons. To begin with, Sulston reminds us that the genome is a part of nature, of the given world, and that knowledge about it is discovered, not invented. In the history of intellectual property, and in patent law particularly, there is a long tradition whereby the things we discover about the natural world cannot be owned. You can’t own the speed of light, even if you were the first to figure out what it is. An invention based on the speed of light, however, that you may own.

“It seems to me that your fencing off of a gene should be confined strictly to an application that you are working on--to an inventive step. I, or someone else, may want to work on an alternative application, and so need to have access to the gene as well. I can’t go away and invent a human gene. So all the discovered part of genes...needs to be kept pre-competitive and free of property rights." Sulston’s implied distinction between the competitive and the pre-competitive suggests a second reason to treat the genome as a commons. With something as basic and pervasive as the human genome, asking that we choose between a private or common property regime sets up a false or premature dichotomy. Just as public roads and waterways provide an infrastructure out of which markets may grow, so publicly available knowledge about the genome allows for a variety of uses, many of them commercial. There is an analogy here to the protocols by which the World Wide Web operates: where the protocols are common knowledge and cannot be taken private, commerce flourishes; were they are proprietary, commerce hesitates. If you want a lively commerce arising from our understanding of the genome, treat it as a commons. A third reason to treat the genome as a commons arises from the nature of the undertaking itself. DNA is not a simple substance. “In every cell of your body you have two meters of the stuff," Sulston writes. If you made a scaled-up model with the DNA from each cell as thick as a sewing thread, your model would be 200 kilometers long. To develop knowledge about something as staggeringly complex as that requires an institutional structure allowing for collaboration and group intelligence." ( )

2. Jorge Contreras:

"Basic scientific research has shown itself to be more amenable to analysis as a common pool resource along the lines developed by Ostrom and her colleagues. As the title of this chapter suggests, the case to which I am referring is genomic research: the large-scale study of the genetic make-up of humans and other organisms that began with the Human Genome Project (HGP) in the late 1980s and continues today in numerous government and privately-funded projects. These projects have made a vast quantity of genetic information available in public databases across the globe. This massive accumulation of data is what I refer to collectively as the “genome commons.”

Today the free availability of genomic data is a fundamental feature of the scientific research landscape. But the existence of this invaluable public resource was by no means assured when the HGP was initiated in the early 1990s. In fact, it was widely believed (and feared) that the majority of genomic data would be held in proprietary databases, protected by patents or confidentiality restrictions, and made available to researchers only under costly subscription agreements. This alternative model, in fact, was the one initially proposed by Celera Genomics, which competed with the public HGP to complete the human genomic sequence from 1998 to 2001.

The fact that the genome commons is today a global, public resource owes much to a 1996 accord reached in Bermuda by scientific leaders and policymakers.

These groundbreaking “Bermuda Principles” required that all DNA sequence data generated by the HGP be released to the public just twenty-four hours after generation, a stark contrast to the months or years that usually preceded the release of scientific data. The Bermuda Principles arose from an early recognition by scientists and policy makers that rapid and efficient sharing of data was necessary to coordinate activity among the geographically dispersed laboratories. But project coordination was not the only factor motivating the unorthodox rapid-release requirement of the Bermuda Principles. More importantly, this approach arose from the conviction among project leaders that rapid release of genomic data was necessary for the advancement of scientific research.

The Bermuda Principles continue to shape data release practices of the genomics research community today and have established “rapid pre-publication data release” as the norm in this and other fields.

Advances in science and technology, however, together with increasingly challenging ethical and legal issues, have complicated the data release landscape and given rise to policy considerations not foreseen in Bermuda. Among these are need to protect human subject data, even at the genomic level, and the desire of scientists who generate large data sets to analyze and publish their research before others. The emergence and recognition of these considerations has led to an evolution of genomics data release policies and norms that are more restrictive and complex than those of the HGP, but which nevertheless preserve the fundamental shared nature of the genome commons. In this respect, the genome commons more resembles the common pool resources studied by Ostrom and her colleagues than the simpler models of the public domain/public goods that are typically associated with basic scientific research." (

Caution: working draft, 'not for citation'

Source: CONSTRUCTING THE GENOME COMMONS. [forthcoming in CONVENING CULTURAL COMMONS (Oxford, 2013)]. Working Draft: Aug. 15, 2012. By Jorge L. Contreras. Working draft not for citation and distribution.