With the research community increasingly frustrated by a growing forest of patents around innovations in the biological sciences, an initiative to make research tools from the life sciences open-source deserves to acquire some traction.

The Biological Innovation for Open Society (BIOS) initiative (see page 494) makes a distinction between tools and applications of innovation. Its champions argue that research tools should be freely available, much as operating systems, programming languages and standards are shared by the open-source software community.

The ranks of those wanting to see more put back into the life sciences for the public good are swelling. There is discontent that innovations from publicly funded scientists are being sold off to private companies and locked up in exclusive licensing. Concern is mounting that poorer nations are being further disenfranchised by richer countries' ownership and control of enabling technologies. Even purely academic scientists are not immune from the effect of licensing obstacles on new techniques.

BIOS should help on several fronts (see http://www.bios.net). Its intellectual-property database and associated informatics promise to bring more transparency to the opaque patent web and to provide tools to guide decision-making when choosing technologies. It will provide a suite of licences and other contract mechanisms for contributors to make their research tools available to a protective commons. And it will provide an Internet-based mechanism to bring networks of researchers together to cooperate on specific technology development projects.

But are biologists ready for an open-source revolution similar to that which spurred information technology? The development of biological tools involves years of research and investment. And, in some cases, it's not as simple as downloading software, with potential logistical challenges involving the transfer of materials and issues of liability. But if BIOS can overcome these challenges, as its champions say it can, it offers a novel means for biologists to share research tools.

As its creators acknowledge, the success of BIOS hinges on active community participation — it needs a large network of scientists to devote their time to contributing research tools, sharing knowledge and addressing particular technology needs. It also needs financial support from private and public benefactors. If the open-source software movement is any guide, there will be willing backers of competitive open-source technologies — as exemplified by IBM's support of the Linux operating system.

The ultimate question is whether BIOS will benefit those for whom it is most intended and provide technology access to the poor and excluded. Whatever the outcome, it deserves a chance to garner support from the research community. At the very least, it may inspire other open-source initiatives within the biological sciences.