New legal tool aims to increase openness, sharing and innovation in global biotechnology

A new easy-to-use legal tool that enables exchange of biological material between research institutes and companies launches today.

The OpenMTA provides a new pathway for open exchange of DNA components - the basic building blocks for new engineering approaches in biology

Jim Haseloff

The OpenMTA is a Material Transfer Agreement (MTA) designed to foster a spirit of openness, sharing and innovation in global biotechnology. MTAs provide the legal frameworks within which research organisations lay down terms and conditions for sharing their materials - everything from DNA to plant seeds to patient samples.

Use of the OpenMTA allows redistribution and commercial use of materials, while respecting the rights of creators and promoting safe practice and responsible research. The new standardised framework also eases the administrative burden for technology transfer offices, negating the need to negotiate unique terms for individual transfers of widely-used material.

The OpenMTA launches today with a commentary published . It provides a new way to openly exchange low level "nuts and bolts" components for biological research and engineering, complementing existing, more restrictive arrangements for material transfer.

The OpenMTA was developed through a collaboration, led by the San Francisco-based BioBricks Foundation and UK-based OpenPlant Synthetic Biology Research Centre. OpenPlant is a joint initiative between the University of Cambridge, John Innes Centre and the Earlham Institute, which aims to develop open technologies and responsible innovations for industrial biotechnology sustainabile agriculture.

Professor Jim Haseloff, University of Cambridge, UK, said: "The OpenMTA provides a new pathway for open exchange of DNA components - the basic building blocks for new engineering approaches in biology. It is a necessary step towards building a commons [commonly owned resource] that will underpin and democratise access to future biotechnological advances and sustainable industries."

The collaboration brought together an international working group comprising researchers, technology transfer professionals, social scientists and legal experts to inform the creation of a legal framework that could improve sharing of biomaterials and increase innovation. The team identified five design goals on which to base the new agreement: access, attribution, reuse, redistribution and non-discrimination.  Additional design goals included issues of safety and, in particular, the sharing of biomaterials in an international context.

Dr Linda Kahl, Senior Counsel of the BioBricks Foundation, said: "We encourage organisations worldwide to sign the OpenMTA Master Agreement and start using it. In five years’ time my ideal is for the OpenMTA to be the default option for the transfer of research materials within and between academic research institutions and companies.

"Instead of automatically placing restrictions on materials, people will ask whether restrictions on use and redistribution are appropriate and instead use this tool to promote sharing and innovation in a way that does not compromise safety."

Dr Colette Matthewman, Programme Manager for the OpenPlant Synthetic Biology Research Centre, said: "We hope to see the OpenMTA enable an international flow of non-proprietary tools between academic, government, NGO and industry researchers, to be used, reused and expanded upon to develop new tools and innovations."

The agreement will facilitate the use, modification and redistribution of tools for innovation in academic and commercial research, and promote access for researchers in less privileged institutions and world regions.

Dr Fernán Federici, Millennium Institute for Integrative Biology (iBio), Santiago, Chile, said: "The OpenMTA will be particularly useful in Latin America, allowing researchers to redistribute materials imported from overseas sources, reducing shipping costs and waiting times for future local users. We are implementing it in an international project that requires sharing genetic tools among labs in four different continents. We believe, the OpenMTA will support projects based on community-sourced resources and distributed repositories that lead to more fluid collaborations."

The OpenPlant Synthetic Biology Research Centre is funded by the UK Biotechnology and biological Sciences Research Council and the Engineering and Physics Council as part of the UK Synthetic Biology for Growth programme.

Adapted from a press release from the John Innes Centre. 

Kahl, L et al. Opening options for material transfer. Nature Biotechnology; 11 Oct 2018