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The human genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 are pretty notorious. A woman carrying a harmful mutation in either of these two genes is five times more likely to develop breast cancer in her lifetime, up from a 12 percent likelihood in the general population to about 60 percent. Taken together, mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 represent the single largest known hereditary source of breast cancer today. But so far, their notoriety has been limited to two usually disparate communities: scientists and patent lawyers.

That's because BRCA1 and BRCA2 are essentially "owned" by a private company, Myriad Genetics, and are at the center of a two-year legal battle over whether human genes can be patented in the first place. Though always surrounded by controversy, gene patents are not uncommon; more than a quarter of human genes currently have patent-holders in universities and biotech companies across the US. But last Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) finally petitioned the Supreme Court to rule on whether this is a legal practice at all.

The effects of a ruling against Myriad would be...