A decision by the Federal Court of Australia to reduce the scope of a patent application that limited genomics work to breed cattle has been labelled "inconvenient but a lot better".
Earlier this month American-based Branhaven LLC and SelecTraits Genomics LLC were ordered to amend their Australian patent regarding the technique of identifying cattle traits using single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) genetic markers.
Meat and Livestock Australia commenced legal proceedings in 2016 and had appealed the court's previous decision in 2018 and 2019.
The technique in question was an integral part of genomic research and the initial claim was so broad it encompassed two thirds of the bovine genome.
Genes for traits like fertility and meat quality are scattered throughout the genome meaning researchers would have been greatly restricted, as explained by University of Queensland director of the centre of animal science, Professor Ben Hayes.
"It would have meant that the genome technologies that we use would have to be greatly restricted and what we were left with, the other third of the genome, we would have got much less useful DNA marker predictions for our traits of interest because we would only be capturing a third of genes rather than all of them," he said.
The reduced patent scope references a shorter amount of the DNA code, potentially only encompassing five per cent of the bovine genome.
Professor Hayes said the decision wasn't ideal but it was a lot better than before.
"The patent now is inconvenient and it means...we can test but we are excluding those regions that are covered," he said.
"It certainly doesn't stop us using genomic technologies.
"We will be working with producers and so on to ensure that they have the right to operate and don't infringe."
In a statement, MLA said its intention in opposing the grant of the patent application had always been to protect producers' ability to utilise genetic technologies in their breeding programs.
"While MLA remains concerned by the vague nature of the amended patent application, we are undertaking research to map the reduced patent scope across the Australian bovine genome," it read.
"MLA remains committed to protecting the genetic advancement of Australia's beef herd, and we are carefully considering the full impacts of today's judgement and assessing available options."
Former Beef CRC CEO Professor Heather Burrow said the initial application covered a very significant portion of the genome component, which when removed from a genome sequence would potentially limit the application of genomic selection for traits that already exist and new traits in future.
"What we do know is that the most economically important traits in livestock and in plants and health traits in humans, are what we call polygenic, in other words they are not controlled by a single gene and they are controlled by hundreds, potentially even thousands of genes," she said.
"Taking a patent for an area of the genomic sequence could potentially limit use of genomic selection for those existing or new trait.
"If climate changes significantly in the future it might mean that temperate breeds of cattle are impacted by new stressors or new viruses. The likelihood is those traits will be under some form of genetic control and genomic selection would be one way to identify animals that are resistant to or tolerant of the new disease or parasite or stressor."
Australia is the only country facing this type of bovine patent but Professor Burrow feared it was a test case for further applications, such as developing countries, who could really benefit from genomic selection.
"MLA in conjunction with researchers in this area are going to have a lot of work to do now to figure out...exactly what is in and what is not in the new patent and how it will impact," she said.
Professor Hayes wondered if a similar patent filed today would have reached the same point given other precedents that have since been set for humans.