60 Minutes Rewind: Whose body is it anyway?

In 2001, Morley Safer reported on the controversy of who owns human genes, and whether they can be patented.

Whose body is it anyway?
Whose body is it anyway? 13:09

It has been nearly 20 years since the Human Genome Project released its first cellular-level blueprint of the human body. The revolutionary project proved instrumental in advancing the scientific understanding of how the body functions.

Discoveries from the Human Genome Project unintentionally touched off ethical and legal debates over the ownership of specific human genes and the ability to patent them.

In February 2001, correspondent Morley Safer filed a report for 60 Minutes titled, "Whose body is it anyway?" The story highlighted legal battles over genetic mutations related to AIDS and Caravan's disease.

"While technology takes us into a brave new world, the old-world laws are racing to catch up," Safer said in 2001. "Patents used to be reserved for inventions like the light bulb or the cotton gin, but in 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that a life form, a genetically altered bacterium used in oil spills, could be patented.  As biotech companies began looking into gene research, that ruling became their license to patent human genes, and the gold rush was on."

The gold rush ended in 2013 when the Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling that isolated DNA is a product of nature is not patentable in the case of Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc.

Despite the landmark decision, advancements in DNA collection and sequencing have led to a new industry that utilizes at-home testing kits and provides customers with information about their genetic make-up and family origins. 

The story that often begins with a saliva sample and ancestral curiosity does not end when companies including 23andMe or Ancestry.com release their findings. 

This Sunday on 60 Minutes, correspondent Jon Wertheim investigates how private companies and foreign governments are using DNA collection and what it means for the future of the United States.