The Story of the Human Genome Project is a Libertarian Greek Tragedy

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The Human Genome Project (HGP) is perhaps the most important libertarian story of our time as it is a quest to unveil the code of life. The very Lockean principles of “you own yourself” collide with gripping drama over the crusade to sequence the human genome. The genome sequence has initiated a new economic frontier1 and it is as impactful as the potential for alternative or competitive crypto currencies like Bitcoin.

Justified by many academic scientists as the equivalent of ‘The New Deal’ of biology, the patriotic sirens of big government science were ringing as loud as they rang for the race to the moon. The taxpayer was promised the paving of the roads up and down the chromosomes for all of humanity to travel toll free. All, of course, funded through the tacit armed force of government because of the fictional belief that big science was of no interest to ‘profit-seeking, greedy’ corporations. The belief that some science has no market value and thus must be funded through centralized force was also sold in the name of greed-free betterment of humanity. The HGP struggled to sell itself through popular proxy or analogous governmental science projects. Parallels to the Manhattan Project were not a comfortable reflection. With the Moon being left desolate for over half a century since arrival, it was an equally unsettling analogy for the HGP considering how frequently the human genome is and would be revisited.

Then came a shocking heresy to this ‘need for NIH science’ belief system in 1998. A private company funded by ‘greedy’ investors called Celera had access to a new DNA sequencer from Applied Biosystems that could complete the human genome in a few years for 1/10th of the price. Celera’s stated interest in patenting 300 of the most valuable genes in the course of their sequencing investment became their vilifying trademark. With competition came speciation. Celera focused on speed and diversity, while the NIH focused on quality and rapid data release. Both succeeded. Fast forward to 2013 and the NIH presently has more gene patents in-force than Celera. The toll free “New Deal” has now become the 10th largest in-force gene patent estate2, 3, all funded through price mechanism-free taxes.

Despite this moral quantum superpositioning by the tax-funded project, the NIH race with Celera was declared a tie by presidential decree. Having been a contributor to the NIH project at MIT, I was invited to the White House for this celebration and I eagerly and perhaps naively attended. My colleagues were exceptional scientists with the best intentions. Our passion for science left us little time to consider Austrian economics, price mechanisms, the coercion of government and the lack of any direct paying customers.

In June of 2000, I became an entrepreneur and started a company that in 2003 developed a DNA sequencer 100,000 times faster than what was used for the Human Genome Project4. We accepted government grants from NIH and ironically Applied Biosystems came to acquire this company in 2006. The SOLiD sequencer was brought to market in 2007 with the full muscle of the dominant player in the DNA sequencing market and it was met with fierce competition5. This competitive market drove the rate of sequencing innovation faster than Gordon Moore’s wildest dreams (Figure 1).

graf 1

Figure 1. The cost of sequencing a human genome superimposed on a log scale with Moore’s law. Gordon Moore coined the vernacular law that states that computer processors would double in performance every 18 months.

This revolution in DNA sequencing led to an explosive rate of discovery and cures for many genetic illnesses6, but there was a fly in the ointment. Thousands of flies actually; manifested in the name of gene patents that would ultimately prevent competitive sequencing of breast cancer patients2, 7-9.

In October 2013, we published a paper in Nature Biotechnology that describes a PCR technique that navigates thousands of gene patents. 10-20% of human genes are patented10. The Supreme Court ruling in 2013 made a patentability distinction between natural and human modified DNA11. This decision merely reinforced most gene patents since >90% of DNA sequence today is obtained with methods that human-modify DNA.

Why is this as profound as Bitcoin?  Since money is half of every transaction in human experience, Bitcoin has the potential to radically change the world through its use of incorruptible truth as currency.

Reflecting back to the Lockean libertarian principle stating “you own yourself”, as the world argues over the insanity of Obamacare, it is clear the government departs with this belief and proclaims to own our bodies. Thus the need for truth in ourselves has never been more critical.

The ability to read ones genome is the ultimate libertarian liberation as it provides the most powerful freedom from the medical grid clutching in on us today. This grid dictates life or death. Knowing your genome will allow you to personalize your diet and pharmaceutical choices. It will provide insights on potential health hazards so they can be acted on in a cost effective preventative manner as opposed to a reactionary retrospective diagnostic odyssey. It is the ultimate freedom from socialized medicine.

As powerful as crypto currency is, your freedom of transactional currency is somewhat less relevant without health. We are frequently witnessing bed-ridden children being sequenced, properly treated and brought back to school. This is happening at such a rapid pace that it is a technological force that will overwhelm the negative economic effect of attempting to slowly socialize medicine. This socialization is happening in the wake of the most personalized medical revolution in evolutionary history. Patent thickets obstruct this revolution and our entropic mission is to bend right around them.

The method we published is called DREAM PCR and it will enable your genome to be read without any hassles from the multitude of gene patents still enforced on the human genome. The manuscript displaying this technique is unfortunately behind a Nature Biotechnology copyright paywall but I felt strongly that this argument needed to be sung on the doorsteps of the IP proponents for the most critical review of the logic. If even your critics can agree with your argument then truth has won. We have also submitted a subsequent manuscript describing additional methods of this technology to an open source journal.

The paper is currently trending at the 97th percentile out of 1.6 million manuscripts tracked by Altmetrics in regards to quantity and quality of internet traffic referencing the paper12.

These metrics are very much social media and web link influenced. Please help me hyperlink the below paper so we can get a patent free human genome as the number one paper and send a loud message about the freedom to read our own genome. It discusses gene patents, Austrian economics and is the first time Murray Rothbard and Friedrich Hayek are referenced in Nature Biotechnology. Scientists are governed by logic and Austrian economics best showcases the Faustian contract we sign when we allow coercion to fund science.

Kevin McKernan

These views are my own and may not reflect those of the other authors of DREAM PCR or Courtagen Life Sciences.


1.         Tripp Economic Impact of the Human Genome Project. (2011).

2.         Graff, G.D. et al. Not quite a myriad of gene patents. Nat Biotechnol 31, 404-410.

3.         Schauinger, S. The Human Gene Patent Report.

4.         The human genome at ten. Nature 464, 649-650.

5.         McKernan, K.J. et al. Sequence and structural variation in a human genome uncovered by short-read, massively parallel ligation sequencing using two-base encoding. Genome Res 19, 1527-1541 (2009).

6.         Bainbridge, M.N. et al. Whole-genome sequencing for optimized patient management. Sci Transl Med 3, 87re83 (2011).

7.         Jensen, K. & Murray, F. Intellectual property. Enhanced: intellectual property landscape of the human genome. Science 310, 239-240 (2005).

8.         Holman, C. Clearing a path through the patent thicket. Cell 125, 629-633 (2006).

9.         Rosenfeld, J. & Mason, C.E. Pervasive sequence patents cover the entire human genome. Genome Med 5, 27.

10.       McKernan, K.J., Spangler, J., Helbert, Y., Zhang, L. & Tadigotla, V. DREAMing of a patent-free human genome for clinical sequencing. Nat Biotechnol 31, 884-887 (2013).

11.       The Association for Molecular Pathology vs USPTO & Myriad Genetics. United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

12.       Nature Nature Biotechnology.

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