Since 1980, when the first gene patent was issued, pharmaceuticals and biotech firms have been patenting genes. More recently, thanks to the completion of the Human Genome Project, the number of such patents has increased dramatically. According to this National Geographic article from 2005, nearly 20% of the human genome has been patented, with 63% of the patents owned by private firms, and 28% by universities.
Some question whether it should be legal for corporations or governmental entities to own patents on genes at all.
Others argue, favoring the biotech industry's perspective, that gene patents are an essential support for genetic research into disease prevention and treatment.
Since we all possess the same genes with only minor variations, it seems somewhat bizarre that biotech companies, once they have discovered a medical use for one of those genetic variations, should be able to claim it as their intellectual property, yet that is just what a patent is.
Our genetic material, and that of all existing species of animals and plants, is the result of millenia of natural selection. If the current trend of patenting genetic material and then collecting royalties on its use continues, the future of our species, and perhaps others, may come to be the result of something quite different: artificial selection.
And this "artificial selection" would be driven not, of course, by environmental pressures, but by cost, profit, and the marketplace.