The foundations of scientific research are being threatened by a proposed new European directive that may lead to the patenting of all of nature, according to British scientists.
In a letter to the journal Nature, eight leading British academics say the proposed directive to the European Parliament and Council on the legal protection of biotechnological inventions poses a "threat to the future of scientific and medical research", curtailing free access to research materials.
According to Jacqueline McGlade of Warwick University, one of the signatories, the directive, which she says will be voted on at the end of March, means a company can patent any organism, as long as it can first demonstrate a "microbiological process".
"It's a charter to enslave nature," said Professor McGlade. "It's patenting of nature wholesale."
At the moment a person or company can only get a patent for a process. If, for example, a research group found a gene that enabled an organism to eat petroleum, they could patent that process, but others would be able to continue research on the organism.
Under the new proposals the patent would cover not just the process, but the organism itself, meaning other groups could not look for other microbiological processes without paying royalties.
In the letter, which is signed by leading biologists and mathematicians from Warwick, London, Oxford, the Open and Sussex universities, the group says: "A company has only to make use of a 'microbiological process' in obtaining plants or animals to be able to patent them. It would then own them and be able to demand patent rights from anyone else wishing to work on them."
The directive says that humans cannot be patented but, according to Professor McGlade, once removed from a human, material can be patented: "You could patent sex. You can take sperm out the body and eggs out the body, you could patent them."
She added that the directive had been seen by six European committees, two of which had voted against the proposals, yet Sir Robert May, the Government's chief scientific adviser was, says Professor McGlade, unaware of the proposals until she informed him.
"There are British representatives on those committees. One has to ask why they are doing it and what kind of research they have been doing."
A spokesman for the Department of Trade and Industry said: "We are fully aware of the directive and the DTI has consulted with a broad range of interested parties including the research councils."