Science is close to resurrecting the mammoth. The question now is whether it will have intellectual property

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We verified it with the ‘Jurassic Park’ movies —sorry for dipping into Steven Spielberg’s topic for the umpteenth time—: seeing prehistoric animals is cool. A lot. What is not so funny anymore, although it would give for a whole docudrama, is the complicated and often thorny legal, ethical and even environmental debate levels that involves “reviving” extinct animals.

The company Colossal Laboratories & Biosciences, from the United States, is setting a good example. He has embarked on the task of “de-extinguishing” – the term is his thing – the woolly mammoth in a matter of a few years; but his endeavor poses an interesting dilemma: if he finally succeeds, the creature resulting from his research, Will it be yours, with a patent, or from nature?

The question is thorny. And there is no easy answer.

Broadly speaking, Colossal plans to use mammoth DNA sequences recovered from remains preserved in Siberian soil and insert them into the genome of Asian elephants. The first specimens would in fact be born by gestation in females of the pachyderm. Although the company uses a good dose of epic when advertising its work, what would come out of its laboratories would not technically be a woolly mammoth like the ones that walked around southern Siberia until about 10,000 years ago and —experts believe— perhaps they were still sprouting on Wrangel Island just 3,700 years agobut something else, a kind of hybrid or chimera.

A debate as complex as the investigation

“It is not a demise. There will never be mammoths on Earth again. If it works, it will be a chimerical elephant, a totally new bodysynthetic and genetically modified explained Tori Herridgebiologist and paleontologist of the Natural History Museum, London, shortly after the plans and —the financing— of the American company were revealed. The Colossal itself acknowledge on your website that the project has its nuances, although it does not detract from its epicness.

“Colossal’s most important de-extinction project will be the resurrection of the woolly mammoth, or more specifically, a cold-resistant elephant with all the fundamental biological traits of the woolly mammoth. It will walk like one, look like one, sound like one and, most importantly, be able to inhabit the same ecosystem previously abandoned by the extinction of the mammoth.”

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The company argues that the recovery of the mammoth – or at least creatures with similar characteristics – will have a valuable environmental impact: it will restore grasslands and slow the thawing arctic permafrost, which in turn would prevent, the firm calculates, the release of up to 600 million tons of net carbon that are now trapped. As part of that purpose, it has already established a space for its “functional mammoths”: Pleistocene Parka Russian reserve.

To achieve this, Colossal seems to have the technical means, talent… and funds. The American company works with CRISPR genetic engineering and DNA samples recovered from permafrost. Its co-founder is also George Church, a Harvard geneticist. As for money, not long ago he announced that he had managed to attract 15 million dollars from investors.

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Colossal is already working to achieve its goal over the next six years. The million dollar question at this point is: Where is the profitability of your project? How has it been done with those 15 million dollars, beyond its ecological promises?

Ben Lamm, CEO of the company, recently explained to Wired that more than monetizing the mammoths directly, the company wants to monetize the technology that it develops throughout the process. Of course, the director clarifies that don’t “shut the door” not at all to patent animals one day; moreover, he shows his confidence that the mammoth can be registered.

Question of laws… and financing

Could something like this be done? The subject is addressed directly in an article published in 2020 on Journal of Law and the Bioscienceswhich recognizes that, at least in the United States, there are academics who trust that the “revived” species will be perfectly patentable.

There is, however, an important difference between the US and Europe: while there is no moral provision in the patent regime, in Europe the EPO (European Patent Office) values ​​ethical considerations when granting them and that could give rise to “moral objections” and of a public nature during the process. Does this mean that it would not be possible for a company to register a woolly mammoth in the EU? Well, it’s not so clear. Given the characteristics of the European regulations and the precedents, doubts can be cast; but the scenario that opens the “de-extinction” is so different that the experts are reluctant to pronounce themselves outright.

Siberia, a minefield: more and more explosive craters appear due to the thawing of the permafrost

“The extent to which a resurrected animal would be treated as a commodity—which might arise if patents were applicable on or related to the extinct animal—raises profound philosophical and ethical questions. Till the date, there is no clear answer on whether such animals would be patentable in Europe”, admit the authors of the articlepublished in 2020.

One of the key issues in the debate is the difference between patentable “inventions” and “discoveries”, which are not, at least as such and if they already exist in nature. A useful example is provided by human genes. In the body they are not susceptible to anyone registering them in Europe, but if they are isolated using technology and technique —a process that does not occur in nature— and their function is demonstrated, they could be.

Similar logic underlies transgenics. If a similar reasoning were applied […]a strong argument for patentability could be made based on the technique used to remove the extinction,” apostille. Things get complicated when it comes to cloning.

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“Anything that can be shown to have been found or is found in a genome will not be patentable in the United States and, to a large extent, not in other countries,” says Andrew Torrance, a professor of law at the University of Kansas (KU ), to Wired.

Although the “revived” animals such as the Colossal mammoth, the result of “extinction”, represent a new twist, the patents of the animals they’ve been on the table for a long time. In 1998 the USA already issued one for OncoMouse, a mouse that had been modified to facilitate cancer research. The American authority granted it to Harvard University, which in turn transferred it to the main private firm that had financed his work, DuPont. Not everyone reaches that end. in the EU patents have already been denied for moral issues.

At stake, recognizes Ben Novak, of Revive & Restore —non-profit organization that passed the project to Colossal—, may be the viability of the investigations. Although he questions that the “de-extinction” should be oriented with the purpose of obtaining benefits and the patents of “resurrected” species, the truth is that the project really attracted money when profits began to be talked about. “It’s expensive” supports Lamm to Wired. The prospect of being able to monetize research with the animals themselves is an incentive that, as has been shown, works.

Perhaps the toll to pay to see mammoths in Siberia again.

Pictures | Creative Commons, Chris Hunkeler (Flickr) and John W. Schulze (Flickr)

We verified it with the ‘Jurassic Park’ movies —sorry for dipping into Steven Spielberg’s topic for the umpteenth time—: seeing…

We verified it with the ‘Jurassic Park’ movies —sorry for dipping into Steven Spielberg’s topic for the umpteenth time—: seeing…

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