The polymerase chain reaction (PCR)--a technique invented by Kary Mullis in 1983, published in 1986,1 and the subject of the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1993--can well be described as one of the most important technical advances of modern molecular biology. How much researchers have to pay to use the technology, however, is now largely in the hands of US and European courts that are deciding who controls patents on a critical enzyme that, in simplistic terms, amounts to the P in PCR.

Basel, Switzerland-based F. Hoffmann-La Roche and Pleasanton, Calif.-based Roche Molecular Systems Inc. (Roche), along with Applied Biosystems in Foster City, Calif., own the patents that cover the use of Taq polymerase in PCR, as well as the technique itself and related instrumentation. But recent legal decisions in the United States and Europe concerning the patentability of one form of this important enzyme may affect the way...

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