This has in the recent past assumed a significant role with regard to medicine, agriculture where one can modify organisms to increase the yield of plants etc. the IP Act has certain things excluded from patentability and one of them is the issue of life forms. In the US practically anything under the sun can be patented. O ne of the leading cases is Diamond v Chakarbaty and one of he main issues here was whether artificially created life forms can be patented. At first they agree to patent the process that created the bacteria but refused to patent the bacterium itself at appeal they did agree to patent the bacterium that was being created from the process.
Plant Varieties are protected under the Seeds and Plant Varieties Act, to patent a new breed of plant, it has to be new, it has to be distinct meaning it has to be distinguishable from any other existing variety. It has to be uniform so there cannot be variance in the new breed. It has to be stable meaning every time it is propagated it does not mutate i.e. it maintains the same characteristics. The opposition of patenting life forms is a moral, religious and ethical reason and not legal.
Bio-tech companies rely on genetic resources that are found within the tropics so essentially they take a life form from here and go to the US and patent it stopping people from the tropics who can patent it. For example they took the Basmati seed, modified it and patented it in the US amid protests from Asia. How do we share benefits that accrue from genetic resources? Who gets paid? One of the most interesting cases is the Hoodia case of South Africa SCIR carried out some research on the Hoodia Plant that had hunger depressant properties and came up with an anti-obesity drug that were used by the Koikoi of the Kalahari. SCI have now agreed to give 10% to the Sun and Koikoi. Patenting of life forms is complex. At the moment WIPO has created a forum where they meet once a year where the various country are supposed to come up with ways to deal with issues of genetic resources and traditional knowledge.