The markedly different characteristics analysis is part of Step 2A Prong One, because the courts use this analysis to identify product of nature exceptions. For example, Chakrabarty relied on a comparison of the claimed bacterium to naturally occurring bacteria when determining that the claimed bacterium was not a product of nature because it had “markedly different characteristics from any found in nature”. Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303, 310, 206 USPQ 193, 197 (1980). Similarly, Roslin relied on a comparison of the claimed sheep to naturally occurring sheep when determining that the claimed sheep was a product of nature because it “does not possess ‘markedly different characteristics from any [farm animals] found in nature.’” In re Roslin Institute (Edinburgh), 750 F.3d 1333, 1337, 110 USPQ2d 1668, 1671-72 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (quoting Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. at 310, 206 USPQ at 197 (alterations in original)).
This section sets forth guidelines for performing the markedly different characteristics analysis, including information on when to perform the analysis, and how to perform the analysis. Examiners should consult these guidelines when performing an eligibility analysis of a claim that recites a nature-based product limitation. Nature-based products, as used herein, include both eligible and ineligible products and merely refer to the types of products subject to the markedly different characteristics analysis used to identify product of nature exceptions.
If the claim includes a nature-based product that has markedly different characteristics, then the claim does not recite a product of nature exception and is eligible (Step 2A: NO) at Pathway B unless the claim recites another exception (such as a law of nature or abstract idea, or a different natural phenomenon). For claims where the entire claim is a single nature-based product (e.g., a claim to “a Lactobacillus bacterium”), once a markedly different characteristic in that product is shown, no further analysis would be necessary for eligibility because no product of nature exception is recited (i.e., Step 2B is not necessary because the answer to Step 2A is NO). For claims including limitations in addition to the nature-based product, examiners should consider whether the claim recites another exception and thus requires further eligibility analysis.
If the claim includes a nature-based product that does not exhibit markedly different characteristics from its naturally occurring counterpart in its natural state, then the claim recites a “product of nature” exception, and requires further analysis in Step 2A Prong Two to determine whether the claim as a whole integrates the exception into a practical application.
I. WHEN TO PERFORM THE MARKEDLY DIFFERENT CHARACTERISTICS ANALYSIS
Because a nature-based product can be claimed by itself (e.g., “a Lactobacillus bacterium”) or as one or more limitations of a claim (e.g., “a probiotic composition comprising a mixture of Lactobacillus and milk in a container”), care should be taken not to overly extend the markedly different characteristics analysis to products that when viewed as a whole are not nature-based. Instead, the markedly different characteristics analysis should be applied only to the nature-based product limitations in the claim to determine whether the nature-based products are “product of nature” exceptions.
Examiners should keep in mind that if the nature-based product limitation is naturally occurring, there is no need to perform the markedly different characteristics analysis because the limitation is by definition directed to a naturally occurring product and thus falls under the product of nature exception. However, if the nature-based product limitation is not naturally occurring, for example due to some human intervention, then the markedly different characteristics analysis must be performed to determine whether the claimed product limitation is a product of nature exception.
A. Product Claims
Where the claim is to a nature-based product by itself (e.g., a claim to “a Lactobacillus bacterium”), the markedly different characteristics analysis should be applied to the entire product. See, e.g., Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. at 305, 309-10, 206 USPQ at 195, 197-98 (applying analysis to entire claimed “bacterium from the genus Pseudomonas containing therein at least two stable energy-generating plasmids, each of said plasmids providing a separate hydrocarbon degradative pathway”).
Where the claim is to a nature-based product produced by combining multiple components (e.g., a claim to “a probiotic composition comprising a mixture of Lactobacillus and milk”), the markedly different characteristics analysis should be applied to the resultant nature-based combination, rather than its component parts. For instance, for the probiotic composition example, the mixture of Lactobacillus and milk should be analyzed for markedly different characteristics, rather than the Lactobacillus separately and the milk separately. See subsection II, below, for further guidance on the markedly different characteristic analysis.
Where the claim is to a nature-based product in combination with non-nature based elements (e.g., a claim to “a yogurt starter kit comprising Lactobacillus in a container with instructions for culturing Lactobacillus with milk to produce yogurt”), the markedly different characteristics analysis should be applied only to the nature-based product limitation. For instance, for the yogurt starter kit example, the Lactobacillus would be analyzed for markedly different characteristics. The container and instructions would not be subject to the markedly different characteristics analysis as they are not nature-based products, but would be evaluated as additional elements in Prong Two (and Step 2B if needed) if it is determined that the Lactobacillus does not have markedly different characteristics from any naturally occurring counterpart and thus is a product of nature exception. See, e.g., Funk Bros. Seed Co. v. Kalo Inoculant Co., 333 U.S. 127, 130, 76 USPQ 280, 281 (1948) (although claims 7, 8, 13 and 14 recited an inoculant comprising a bacterial mixture and a powder base, only the bacterial mixture was analyzed).
B. Product-by-Process Claims
For a product-by-process claim (e.g., a claim to a cloned farm animal produced by a nuclear transfer cloning method), the analysis turns on whether the nature-based product in the claim has markedly different characteristics from its naturally occurring counterpart. See MPEP § 2113 for more information on product-by-process claims.
C. Process Claims
For a process claim, the general rule is that the claim is not subject to the markedly different analysis for nature-based products used in the process. This is because the analysis of a process claim should focus on the active steps of the process rather than the products used in those steps. For example, when evaluating a claimed process of cryopreserving hepatocyte cells comprising performing density gradient fractionation to separate viable and non-viable hepatocytes, recovering the viable hepatocytes, and cryopreserving the recovered viable hepatocytes, the court did not subject the claim to the markedly different characteristics analysis for the nature-based products (the hepatocytes) used in the process. Rapid Litig. Mgmt. v. CellzDirect, Inc., 827 F.3d 1042, 1049, 119 USPQ2d 1370, 1374 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (claims are directed to a process of creating a preparation of multi-cryopreserved hepatocytes, not to the preparation itself).
However, in the limited situation where a process claim reciting a nature-based product is drafted in such a way that there is no difference in substance from a product claim, the claim is subject to the markedly different analysis for the recited nature-based product. These types of claims are drafted in a way that focuses on the product rather than the process steps. For example, consider a claim that recites, in its entirety, “a method of providing an apple.” Under the broadest reasonable interpretation, this claim is focused on the apple fruit itself, which is a nature-based product. Similarly, claims to detecting naturally occurring cell-free fetal DNA (cffDNA) in maternal blood were held to be directed to the cffDNA, because the “existence and location of cffDNA is a natural phenomenon [and thus] identifying its presence was merely claiming the natural phenomena itself.” Rapid Litig. Mgmt., 827 F.3d at 1048, 119 USPQ2d at 1374, (explaining the holding in Ariosa Diagnostics, Inc. v. Sequenom, 788 F.3d 1371, 115 USPQ2d 1152 (Fed. Cir. 2015)).
II. HOW TO PERFORM THE MARKEDLY DIFFERENT CHARACTERISTICS ANALYSIS
The markedly different characteristics analysis compares the nature-based product limitation to its naturally occurring counterpart in its natural state. Markedly different characteristics can be expressed as the product’s structure, function, and/or other properties, and are evaluated based on what is recited in the claim on a case-by-case basis. If the analysis indicates that a nature-based product limitation does not exhibit markedly different characteristics, then that limitation is a product of nature exception. If the analysis indicates that a nature-based product limitation does have markedly different characteristics, then that limitation is not a product of nature exception.
This section sets forth guidelines for performing the markedly different characteristics analysis, including information on (a) selecting the appropriate naturally occurring counterpart(s) to the nature-based product limitation, (b) identifying appropriate characteristics for analysis, and (c) evaluating characteristics to determine whether they are “markedly different”.
A. Selecting The Appropriate Counterpart(s)
Because the markedly different characteristics analysis compares the nature-based product limitation to its naturally occurring counterpart in its natural state, the first step in the analysis is to select the appropriate counterpart(s) to the nature-based product.
When the nature-based product is derived from a naturally occurring thing, then the naturally occurring thing is the counterpart. For example, assume that applicant claims deoxyacid A, which is a chemical derivative of a naturally occurring chemical called acid A. Because applicant created the claimed nature-based product (deoxyacid A) by modifying the naturally occurring acid A, the closest natural counterpart for deoxyacid A would be the natural product from which it was derived, i.e., acid A. See, e.g.,Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. at 305 and n.1, 206 USPQ at 195 and n.1 (counterpart to genetically modified Pseudomonas bacterium containing multiple plasmids is the naturally occurring unmodified Pseudomonas bacterium from which the claimed bacterium was created); Roslin, 750 F.3d at 1337, 110 USPQ2d at 1671-72 (counterparts to cloned sheep are naturally occurring sheep such as the donor ewe from which the clone was created).
Although the selected counterpart should be in its natural state, examiners should take care not to confuse the counterpart with other material that may occur naturally with, or adjacent to, the counterpart. For example, assume that applicant claims a nucleic acid having a nucleotide sequence derived from naturally occurring gene B. Although gene B occurs in nature as part of a chromosome, the closest natural counterpart for the claimed nucleic acid is gene B, and not the whole chromosome. See, e.g., Ass’n for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., 569 U.S. 576, 591-94, 106 USPQ2d 1972, 1979-81 (2013) (comparing isolated BRCA1 genes and BRCA1 cDNA molecules to naturally occurring BRCA1 gene); Roche Molecular System, Inc. v. CEPHEID, 905 F.3d 1363, 1371, 128 USPQ2d 1221, 1227 (Fed. Cir. 2018) (comparing claimed primers to “their corresponding nucleotide sequences on the naturally occurring DNA”). Similarly, assume that applicant claims a single-stranded piece of DNA (a primer) having a nucleotide sequence derived from the sense strand of naturally occurring nucleic acid C. Although nucleic acid C occurs in nature as a double-stranded molecule having a sense and an antisense strand, the closest natural counterpart for the claimed nucleic acid is the sense strand of C only. See, e.g., University of Utah Research Foundation v. Ambry Genetics, 774 F.3d 755, 760, 113 USPQ2d 1241, 1241 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (comparing single-stranded nucleic acid to the same strand found in nature, even though “single-stranded DNA cannot be found in the human body”).
When there are multiple counterparts to the nature-based product, the comparison should be made to the closest naturally occurring counterpart. For example, assume that applicant creates a cloned sheep D by transferring nuclear DNA from a Finn-Dorset sheep into an egg cell (which contains mitochondrial DNA) from a Scottish Blackface sheep. Applicant then claims sheep D. Here, because sheep D was created via combining DNA from two different naturally occurring sheep of different breeds, there is no single closest natural counterpart. The examiner should therefore select the counterpart most closely related to sheep D based on the examiner’s expertise in the particular art. For the example discussed here, the closest counterparts might be naturally occurring Finn-Dorset or Scottish Blackface sheep, as opposed to sheep of a different breed such as Bighorn sheep. Cf. Roslin, 750 F.3d at 1337, 110 USPQ2d at 1671-72 (claimed sheep produced by nuclear transfer into an oocyte and subsequent manipulation of natural embryonic development processes was compared to naturally occurring sheep such as the donor ewe from which the nuclear material was obtained). When the nature-based product is a combination produced from multiple components, the closest counterpart may be the individual nature-based components of the combination. For example, assume that applicant claims an inoculant comprising a mixture of bacteria from different species, e.g., some bacteria of species E and some bacteria of species F. Because there is no counterpart mixture in nature, the closest counterparts to the claimed mixture are the individual components of the mixture, i.e., each naturally occurring species by itself. See, e.g., Funk Bros., 333 U.S. at 130, 76 USPQ at 281 (comparing claimed mixture of bacterial species to each species as it occurs in nature); Ambry Genetics, 774 F.3d at 760, 113 USPQ2d at 1244 (although claimed as a pair, individual primer molecules were compared to corresponding segments of naturally occurring gene sequence); In re Bhagat, 726 Fed. Appx. 772, 778-79 (Fed. Cir. 2018) (non-precedential) (comparing claimed mixture of lipids with particular lipid profile to “naturally occurring lipid profiles of walnut oil and olive oil”). See subsection II. C.
If the claim is rejected as ineligible, it is a “best practice” for the examiner to identify the selected counterpart in the Office action if the record is not already clear. This practice assists the applicant in responding, and clarifies the record as to how the examiner is interpreting the claim.
B. Identifying Appropriate Characteristics For Analysis
Because the markedly different characteristics analysis is based on comparing the characteristics of the claimed nature-based product and its counterpart, the second step in the analysis is to identify appropriate characteristics to compare.
Appropriate characteristics must be possessed by the claimed product, because it is the claim that must define the invention to be patented. Cf. Roslin, 750 F.3d at 1338, 110 USPQ2d at 1673 (unclaimed characteristics could not contribute to eligibility). Examiners can identify the characteristics possessed by the claimed product by looking at what is recited in the claim language and encompassed within the broadest reasonable interpretation of the nature-based product. In some claims, a characteristic may be explicitly recited. For example, in a claim to “deoxyribose”, the recited chemical name informs those in the art of the structural characteristics of the product (i.e., the “deoxy” prefix indicates that a hydroxyl group has been removed as compared to ribose). In other claims, the characteristic may be apparent from the broadest reasonable interpretation even though it is not explicitly recited in the claim. For example, in a claim to “isolated gene B,” the examiner would need to rely on the broadest reasonable interpretation of “isolated gene B” to determine what characteristics the isolated gene has, e.g., what its nucleotide sequence is, and what, if any, protein it encodes.
Appropriate characteristics can be expressed as the nature-based product’s structure, function, and/or other properties, and are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Non-limiting examples of the types of characteristics considered by the courts when determining whether there is a marked difference include:
- • Biological or pharmacological functions or activities;
- • Chemical and physical properties;
- • Phenotype, including functional and structural characteristics; and
- • Structure and form, whether chemical, genetic or physical.
Examples of biological or pharmacological functions or activities include, but are not limited to:
- i. the protein-encoding information of a nucleic acid, Myriad, 569 U.S. at 590-91, 106 USPQ2d at 1979;
- ii. the ability of complementary nucleotide sequences to bind to each other, Ambry Genetics, 774 F.3d at 760-61, 113 USPQ2d at 1244;
- iii. the properties and functions of bacteria such as the ability to infect certain leguminous plants, Funk Bros., 333 U.S. at 130-31, 76 USPQ2d at 281-82;
- iv. the ability to degrade certain hydrocarbons, Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. at 310, 206 USPQ2d at 195; and
- v. the ability of vitamin C to prevent and treat scurvy, In re King, 107 F.2d 618, 27 CCPA 754, 756-57, 43 USPQ 400, 401-402 (CCPA 1939).
Examples of chemical and physical properties include, but are not limited to:
- i. the alkalinity of a chemical compound, Parke-Davis & Co. v. H.K. Mulford Co., 189 F. 95, 103-04 (S.D.N.Y. 1911); and
- ii. the ductility or malleability of metals, In re Marden, 47 F.2d 958, 959, 18 CCPA 1057, 1059, 8 USPQ 347, 349 (CCPA 1931).
Examples of phenotypic characteristics include, but are not limited to:
- i. functional and structural characteristics such as the shape, size, color, and behavior of an organism, Roslin, 750 F.3d at 1338, 110 USPQ2d at 1672.
Examples of structure and form include, but are not limited to:
- i. physical structure or form such as the physical presence of plasmids in a bacterial cell, Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. at 305 and n.1, 206 USPQ2d at 195 and n.1;
- ii. chemical structure and form such as a chemical being a “nonsalt” and a “crystalline substance”, Parke-Davis, 189 F. at 100, 103;
- iii. genetic structure such as the nucleotide sequence of DNA, Myriad, 569 U.S. at 590, 594-95, 106 USPQ2d at 1979, 1981; and
- iv. the genetic makeup (genotype) of a cell or organism, Roslin, 750 F.3d at 1338-39, 110 USPQ2d at 1672-73.
C. Evaluating Characteristics To Determine Whether They Are “Markedly Different”
The final step in the markedly different characteristics analysis is to compare the characteristics of the claimed nature-based product to its naturally occurring counterpart in its natural state, in order to determine whether the characteristics of the claimed product are markedly different. The courts have emphasized that to show a marked difference, a characteristic must be changed as compared to nature, and cannot be an inherent or innate characteristic of the naturally occurring counterpart or an incidental change in a characteristic of the naturally occurring counterpart. Myriad, 569 U.S. at 580, 106 USPQ2d at 1974-75. Thus, in order to be markedly different, applicant must have caused the claimed product to possess at least one characteristic that is different from that of the counterpart.
If there is no change in any characteristic, the claimed product lacks markedly different characteristics, and is a product of nature exception. If there is a change in at least one characteristic as compared to the counterpart, and the change came about or was produced by applicant’s efforts or influences, then the change will generally be considered a markedly different characteristic such that the claimed product is not a product of nature exception.
1. Examples of Products Having Markedly Different Characteristics
In Chakrabarty, the Supreme Court identified a claimed bacterium as a nature-based product having markedly different characteristics. This bacterium had a changed functional characteristic, i.e., it was able to degrade at least two different hydrocarbons as compared to naturally occurring Pseudomonas bacteria that can only degrade a single hydrocarbon. The claimed bacterium also had a different structural characteristic, i.e., it was genetically modified to include more plasmids than are found in a single naturally occurring Pseudomonas bacterium. The Supreme Court considered these changed characteristics to be “markedly different characteristics from any found in nature” due to the additional plasmids and resultant capacity for degrading multiple hydrocarbon components of oil. Therefore, the bacterium was eligible. Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303, 310, 206 USPQ 193, 197 (1980).
In Myriad, the Supreme Court identified a claimed full-length complementary DNA (cDNA) of the BRCA1 gene as a nature-based product having markedly different characteristics. This claimed cDNA had the same functional characteristics (i.e., it encoded the same protein) as the naturally occurring gene, but had a changed structural characteristic, i.e., a different nucleotide sequence containing only exons, as compared to the naturally occurring sequence containing both exons and introns. The Supreme Court concluded that the “cDNA retains the naturally occurring exons of DNA, but it is distinct from the DNA from which it was derived. As a result, [this] cDNA is not a ‘product of nature’” and is eligible. Myriad, 569 U.S. at 595, 106 USPQ2d at 1981.
2. Examples of Products Lacking Markedly Different Characteristics
In Myriad, the Supreme Court made clear that not all changes in characteristics will rise to the level of a marked difference, e.g., the incidental changes resulting from isolation of a gene sequence are not enough to make the isolated gene markedly different. Myriad, 569 U.S. at 580, 106 USPQ2d at 1974-75. The patentee in Myriad had discovered the location of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes in the human genome, and isolated them, i.e., separated those specific genes from the rest of the chromosome on which they exist in nature. As a result of their isolation, the isolated genes had a different structural characteristic than the natural genes, i.e., the natural genes had covalent bonds on their ends that connected them to the rest of the chromosome, but the isolated genes lacked these bonds. However, the claimed genes were otherwise structurally identical to the natural genes, e.g., they had the same genetic structure and nucleotide sequence as the BRCA genes in nature. The Supreme Court concluded that these isolated but otherwise unchanged genes were not eligible, because they were not different enough from what exists in nature to avoid improperly tying up the future use and study of the naturally occurring BRCA genes. See, e.g., Myriad, 569 U.S. at 585, 106 USPQ2d at 1977 (“Myriad’s patents would, if valid, give it the exclusive right to isolate an individual’s BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes … But isolation is necessary to conduct genetic testing”) and 569 U.S. at 593, 106 USPQ2d at 1980 (describing how would-be infringers could not avoid the scope of Myriad’s claims). In sum, the claimed genes were different, but not markedly different, from their naturally occurring counterparts (the BRCA genes), and thus were product of nature exceptions.
In Ambry Genetics, the court identified claimed DNA fragments known as “primers” as products of nature, because they lacked markedly different characteristics. University of Utah Research Foundation v. Ambry Genetics Corp., 774 F.3d 755, 113 USPQ2d 1241 (Fed. Cir. 2014). The claimed primers were single-stranded pieces of DNA, each of which corresponded to a naturally occurring double-stranded DNA sequence in or near the BRCA genes. The patentee argued that these primers had markedly different structural characteristics from the natural DNA, because the primers were synthetically created and because “single-stranded DNA cannot be found in the human body”. The court disagreed, concluding that the primers’ structural characteristics were not markedly different than the corresponding strands of DNA in nature, because the primers and their counterparts had the same genetic structure and nucleotide sequence. 774 F.3d at 760, 113 USPQ2d at 1243-44. The patentee also argued that the primers had a different function than when they are part of the DNA strand because when isolated as a primer, a primer can be used as a starting material for a DNA polymerization process. The court disagreed, because this ability to serve as a starting material is innate to DNA itself, and was not created or altered by the patentee:
In fact, the naturally occurring genetic sequences at issue here do not perform a significantly new function. Rather, the naturally occurring material is used to form the first step in a chain reaction–a function that is performed because the primer maintains the exact same nucleotide sequence as the relevant portion of the naturally occurring sequence. One of the primary functions of DNA’s structure in nature is that complementary nucleotide sequences bind to each other. It is this same function that is exploited here–the primer binds to its complementary nucleotide sequence. Thus, just as in nature, primers utilize the innate ability of DNA to bind to itself.
Ambry Genetics, 774 F.3d at 760-61, 113 USPQ2d at 1244. In sum, because the characteristics of the claimed primers were innate to naturally occurring DNA, they lacked markedly different characteristics from nature and were thus product of nature exceptions. A similar result was reached in Marden, where the court held a claim to ductile vanadium ineligible, because the “ductility or malleability of vanadium is . . . one of its inherent characteristics and not a characteristic given to it by virtue of a new combination with other materials or which characteristic is brought about by some chemical reaction or agency which changes its inherent characteristics”. In re Marden, 47 F.2d 958, 959, 18 CCPA 1057, 1060, 8 USPQ 347, 349 (CCPA 1931).
In Roslin, the court concluded that claimed clones of farm animals were products of nature, because they lacked markedly different characteristics from the counterpart farm animals found in nature. In re Roslin Institute (Edinburgh), 750 F.3d 1333, 1337, 110 USPQ2d 1668, 1671 (Fed. Cir. 2014). Applicant created its clones (which included the famous cloned sheep named Dolly) by transferring the genetic material of a donor into an oocyte (egg cell), letting the oocyte develop into an embryo, and then implanting the embryo into a surrogate animal where it developed into a baby animal. The applicant argued that the clones, including Dolly, were eligible because they were created via human ingenuity, and had phenotypic differences such as shape, size and behavior compared to their donors. The court was unpersuaded, explaining that the clones were exact genetic replicas of the donors and thus did not possess markedly different characteristics. 750 F.3d at 1337, 110 USPQ2d at 1671-72 (“Roslin’s chief innovation was the preservation of the donor DNA such that the clone is an exact copy of the mammal from which the somatic cell was taken. Such a copy is not eligible for patent protection.”). The court noted that the alleged phenotypic differences (e.g., the fact that Dolly may have been taller or heavier than her donor) could not make the clones markedly different because these differences were not claimed. 750 F.3d at 1338, 110 USPQ2d at 1672. See also Roche Molecular System, Inc. v. CEPHEID, 905 F.3d 1363, 1370, 128 USPQ2d 1221, 1226 (Fed. Cir. 2018) (alleged structural differences between linear primers and their counterparts on a circular chromosome were neither claimed nor relevant to the eligibility inquiry).