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How Does a German Chemical Company Have a Patent on Sperm Whales?

You can apparently get a patent on pretty much anything — including 40-foot marine mammals.

You can apparently get a patent on pretty much anything — including sperm whales. You know, these 40-foot guys.

patent sperm whales

That's right — there's a German chemical company that owns the patent to key parts of the sperm whale genome. In fact, the same company owns 47 percent of the patents for marine gene sequences ... in the whole world.

A new paper in the journal Science Advances found that 862 marine life species have patents on them for research. The lead authors were pretty surprised to see just how many patents there were on genome sequences for aquatic life.

There were 13,000 in total, including ones for well-known animals like the sperm whale and the manta ray.

patent sperm whales Giphy

And nearly half of those are owned by the same company — possibly the largest chemical company in the world: Baden Aniline and Soda Factory.

The chemical company uses the genomes for research. For example, the paper found that BASF has been using the genes of some aquatic microorganisms to create fancy oils that contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

They're making them by splicing genes from different microorganisms into grape seed and canola oil.


The researchers who wrote the paper are a little concerned because 98 percent of these sequences — dare we call them sea-quences — are owned by just three countries: Germany, the United States and Japan. But the ocean belongs to everyone, they argue.

If you're wondering, the Supreme Court already decided back in 2013 that companies can't patent snippets of human DNA.

That way, the genes linked to breast and ovarian cancer couldn't be used by just a single company to develop treatments.


But the laws around patenting marine life DNA are much murkier.

The authors of the paper hope that policymakers can distinguish between "commercial and noncommercial research" in order to contribute to research that everyone can benefit from.


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