The US Supreme Court has heard arguments questioning whether the human genome can be claimed as intellectual property.
The case relates to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2009, and centres on whether companies should be able to patent genes.
US agencies have been awarding patents on genes to universities and medical companies for almost 30 years.
The BBC reports the case may have far-reaching repercussions for future gene research.
Currently, researchers and private companies work to isolate genes in order to use them in tests for gene-related illnesses, and in emerging gene therapies.
According to researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College, patents now cover some 40% of the human genome.
The ACLU lawsuit, filed in conjunction with the Public Patent Foundation, relates to seven patents on two human genes held by US firm Myriad Genetics.
The genes are linked to breast and ovarian cancer, and Myriad has developed a test to look for mutations in these genes that may increase the risk of developing cancer.
The company argues that the genes patented were "isolated" by them, making them products of human ingenuity and therefore patentable.
The ACLU rejects this argument, saying that genes are products of nature, and therefore can't be patented under US laws.