You’re (Maybe) Gonna Need a Patent for That Woolly Mammoth
If we did bring extinct animals back into modern ecosystems, we may end up running into other serious problems, says Bruford. Mammoths are huge wide-ranging animals that might be hard to contain, and we don’t know if the diseases that may have kept mammoth populations in check still exist today. “It’s not like Jurassic Park, when it’s all on some little fictional island in the middle of the Caribbean. These are big countries with big borders which are porous,” he says.
There’s also the not-insignificant question of how de-extinct animals would be classified. Would a gene-edited Asian elephant be considered a mammoth, an elephant, or something in-between? Would it go immediately on the endangered species list? Or—because it had never existed before—would it technically be an invasive species and prohibited from most areas?
For Novak, although he supports de-extinction, he doesn’t think that the industry should exist for profit, or that a resurrected species should ever be patented. “We are a byproduct of the incredible story of this planet, and it’s an incredible amount of arrogance to believe that we could have some kind of legal right over an entire population of organisms,” he says.
Most of his scientific publications are available online for people to access for free, and those that aren’t he gives away to anyone who asks. If he manages to resurrect the passenger pigeons, Novak says he’ll never sell one. In fact, Revive & Restore had run a mammoth de-extinction project for nine years without attracting enough funding to really get the project underway, Novak says. The nonprofit originally intended to work toward repopulating the tundra in Eurasia and North America with elephant-mammoth hybrids, and its webpage says it brokered the introduction between geneticist George Church and Sergey Zimonv before eventually handing the project over to Colossal.
The revamped, now for-profit project quickly attracted funding from Breyer Capital, Tony Robbins, the Winklevoss brothers, and filmmaker Thomas Tull, whose production firm, incidentally, was behind Jurassic World. “The fact of the matter is that [de-extinction] doesn’t attract money. It only attracted money when the idea of profit was brought to the table,” Novak says.
But without private investment, de-extinction might never get off the ground, argues Lamm. “I mean, it’s expensive, from a process perspective,” he says. Colossal will have to raise even more money to keep the project going, and Lamm says that the technologies the startup develops along the way will hopefully benefit health care, research, and conservation. “The de-extinction technology stack can not only be leveraged for species like mammoths, but also for small populations like the northern white rhinos and others,” he says.
Patents—or at least profit—might just be the price conservationists have to pay. And although he vehemently rejects the for-profit de-extinction model, even Novak has an idea he wants to patent. It’s for a genetically modified pigeon that would be much easier to gene-edit than existing birds, and he thinks it could save researchers a lot of time. If his idea works, and he’s granted a patent, he’d like to channel the funds from his invention back into his nonprofit de-extinction work. “We have to make money. The whole world revolves around money,” he says. “So I’d like to try and get a little piece of my pie too.”
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