Antonin Scalia Does Not Believe in Molecular Biology

Justice Antonin Scalia agrees with his fellow Supreme Court justices that naturally occurring genes can't be patented. Where he appears to differ: The existence of genes, the basic science of genetics, molecular biology, and evolution. He just dissented from all of the above.

Today, the court found in favor of the Association for Molecular Pathology in a case about the legality of patenting genes, ruling 9-0 that while synthetic genes may be patented, those extracted from the human body may not.

Clarence Thomas wrote the opinion, which was joined by Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Ginsberg, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, and Kagan. But not Scalia. While he voted with the majority, he wrote his own concurrence to make abundantly clear that he did not agree with the parts of Thomas' opinion that recited the basic, sound, and undeniable fundamentals of molecular biology.

While he "joins the judgment of the court," Scalia wrote, he won't sign on to "Part I–A and some portions of the rest of the opinion going into fine details of molecular biology." Why? Because he can't "affirm those details on [his] own knowledge or even [his] own belief."

So what is Part I-A? Sounds like some pretty out-there stuff. It begins: "Genes form the basis for hereditary traits in living organisms." It holds that genes are "encoded as DNA, which takes the shape of the familiar 'double helix,'" and describes the chemical structures of DNA. It tells, in basic terms, what DNA is and how it works, ending with: "the study of genetics can lead to valuable medical breakthroughs." It literally makes no other claims—it is a dry recitation of genetic science. High-school-level stuff.

Scalia can't fully join his fellow justices because he doesn't believe in genes.

Here's the text of Scalia's concurrence:

I join the judgment of the Court, and all of its opinion except Part I–A and some portions of the rest of the opinion going into fine details of molecular biology. I am unable to affirm those details on my own knowledge or even my own belief. It suffices for me to affirm, having studied the opinions below and the expert briefs presented here, that the portion of DNA isolated from its natural state sought to be patented is identical to that portion of the DNA in its natural state; and that complementary DNA (cDNA) is a synthetic creation not normally present in nature.

Here's the text of part I-A:

Genes form the basis for hereditary traits in living organisms. See generally Association for Molecular Pathology v. United States Patent and Trademark Office, 702 F. Supp. 2d 181, 192–211 (SDNY 2010). The human genome consists of approximately 22,000 genes packed into 23 pairs of chromosomes. Each gene is encoded as DNA, which takes the shape of the familiar “double helix” that Doctors James Watson and Francis Crick first described in 1953. Each “cross-bar” in the DNA helix consists of two chemically joined nucleotides. The possible nucleotides are adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C), and guanine (G), each of which binds naturally with another nucleotide: A pairs with T; C pairs with G. The nucleotide cross-bars are chemically connected to a sugar-phosphate backbone that forms the outside framework of the DNA helix. Sequences of DNA nucleotides contain the information necessary to create strings of amino acids, which in turn are used in the body to build proteins. Only some DNA nucleotides, however, code for amino acids; these nucleotides are known as “exons.” Nucleotides that do not code for amino acids, in contrast, are known as “introns.”

Creation of proteins from DNA involves two principal steps, known as transcription and translation. In transcription, the bonds between DNA nucleotides separate, and the DNA helix unwinds into two single strands. A single strand is used as a template to create a complementary ribonucleic acid (RNA) strand. The nucleotides on the DNA strand pair naturally with their counterparts, with the exception that RNA uses the nucleotide base uracil (U) instead of thymine (T). Transcription results in a single strand RNA molecule, known as pre-RNA, whose nucleotides form an inverse image of the DNA strand from which it was created. Pre-RNA still contains nucleotides corresponding to both the exons and introns in the DNA molecule. The pre-RNA is then naturally “spliced” by the physical removal of the introns. The resulting product is a strand of RNA that contains nucleotides corresponding only to the exons from the original DNA strand. The exons-only strand is known as messenger RNA (mRNA), which creates amino acids through translation. In translation, cellular structures known as ribosomes read each set of three nucleotides, known as codons, in the mRNA. Each codon either tells the ribosomes which of the 20 possible amino acids to synthesize or provides a stop signal that ends amino acid production.

DNA’s informational sequences and the processes that create mRNA, amino acids, and proteins occur naturally within cells. Scientists can, however, extract DNA from cells using well known laboratory methods. These methods allow scientists to isolate specific segments of DNA— for instance, a particular gene or part of a gene—which can then be further studied, manipulated, or used. It is also possible to create DNA synthetically through processes similarly well known in the field of genetics. One such method begins with an mRNA molecule and uses the natural bonding properties of nucleotides to create a new, synthetic DNA molecule. The result is the inverse of the mRNA’s inverse image of the original DNA, with one important distinction: Because the natural creation of mRNA involves splicing that removes introns, the synthetic DNA created from mRNA also contains only the exon sequences. This synthetic DNA created in the laboratory from mRNA is known as complementary DNA (cDNA).

Changes in the genetic sequence are called mutations. Mutations can be as small as the alteration of a single nucleotide—a change affecting only one letter in the genetic code. Such small-scale changes can produce an entirely different amino acid or can end protein production altogether. Large changes, involving the deletion, rearrangement, or duplication of hundreds or even millions of nucleotides, can result in the elimination, misplacement, or duplication of entire genes. Some mutations are harmless, but others can cause disease or increase the risk of disease. As a result, the study of genetics can lead to valuable medical breakthroughs.

The entire opinion is available here as a PDF.