Patenting Animal Life

The United States has become the first country to allow the patenting of animal life.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office announced last month that new forms of animal life created through gene splicing could be patented. Gene splicing involves transplanting genes from different species into the embryos of livestock and other animals. The new policy was opposed by 12 animal welfare groups, including the Humane Society of the United States.

Genetically altered forms of animal life are used primarily in agriculture, where gene splicing quickens the development of traits in cows such as the ability to give more milk or in pigs so they will have less fat. Maryland researchers inserted a human growth hormone gene into pig embryos to make pigs grow faster. And at the University of California at Davis, researchers fused a goat embryo with a sheep embryo to produce an animal they call a “geep.”

The new policy bars the patenting of genetic characteristics in humans. But critics have taken issue with the implications of the policy, which one patent office official acknowledged could eventually lead to commercial protection of new human traits.

“One can infer from this decision that the entire creative process in higher forms of life, including human life, is going to be redirected or controlled to satisfy purely human ends,” said Michael Fox, scientific director of the Humane Society of the United States. “We are not only playing God, we are assuming dominion over God.”


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