Important scientific discoveries can take years to realize their full potential. First, there is the back-and-forth process of determining if something is true during which papers can languish in online repositories for years, unknown to most. Then, there are the debates about its usefulness or scientific reach. However, there are times when certain innovations clearly revolutionize the ways that scientists use the resources available to them or significantly facilitate the acquisition of scientific knowledge.
The recently discovered scientific technique known as the CRISPR-Cas system for gene editing is one such innovation; however, disputes regarding ownership and development of this technology ultimately proves to be an important case study of how ELN software should be implemented in all labs.
CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing: From bacteria cells to a new era in molecular biology research
CRISPRs (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) are short repetitions of base sequences that work in tandem with a Cas9 enzymatic protein to cut DNA. Select bacteria and archaea use the CRISPR-Cas9 system, which exists endogenously in these species, to recognize and cut specific viral or foreign DNA sequences. In this way, they are preventing the integration of these sequences into their own genomes (for more information about the science behind the CRISPR-Cas9 system and its use in research studies, please visit the scientific description at the New England Biolabs webpage).
Importantly, by co-opting this system, biologists have been able to use CRISPR-Cas9 for very efficient gene editing (adding, disrupting or changing the sequence of a gene). Thus, the very difficult process of making transgenic mice with specific genes added or removed has become significantly easier, more efficient, and direct. Now, scientists can answer questions about the function of genes or their protein products more quickly, providing us with deeper insight into previously obscure biological questions.
Controversy: Who discovered CRISPR-Cas9 in its current form?
A fundamental and pressing controversy about this new technology is now being played out in the court system. The controversy: who discovered this system and can thus claim ownership over its use?
Billions of dollars are at stake in answering this question, but there is no clear answer. From one perspective, the discovery can be credited to Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, who, in November 2014, were awarded the $3 million Breakthrough Prize for their development of CRISPR-Cas9. From another perspective, Feng Zhang (and his group members) created this technology in its current form given that it was he who had won a broad U.S. patent on the technology. MIT’s Technology Review magazine asks how the high-profile prize and patent could end up in different hands, but this question could have been avoided had the groups used ELN software.
ELN software as a form of validation and ligation avoidance
In support of his patent application, Zhang was said to have taken pictures of his lab notebooks; however, notebooks can be misplaced, damaged, or difficult to read. ELN software is an essential component of protecting intellectual property because it can store and organize acquired information, thereby protecting that information. Once an entry has been imputed onto an ELN software platform or any time an entry is changed, a recorded timestamp becomes available with the name of the individual who modified the entry. Additionally, these entries are impossible to delete. Given that Zhang and Doudna were once colleagues at the CRIPSR-Cas9-based technological start-up company, and their relationship eventually soured, it is difficult to say who discovered or owns this breakthrough technology. The protection of ELN software entries is of utmost importance in patent applications and in establishing ownership.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, friendly colleagues can become enemies and companies are disbanded and rebuilt. In the ever-changing milieu of scientific collaborations, ELN software emerges as an important constant that enables scientists to avoid first-to-file roadblocks. Subsequently, the use of ELN software enables scientists and their collaborators to determine the extent of each person’s contribution and a BIOVIA ELN can especially ensure that intellectual property remains protected. Determine how to implement these measures today in order to avoid what occurred with the patenting of CRISPR-Cas9.