Professor examining potential laws to regulate de-extinction

Wed, 08/21/2013

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LAWRENCE — Science has a way of catching up with fantasy. While movies like “Jurassic Park” brought dinosaurs back to life, few imagined that the day might come when extinct creatures could be revived. But the possibility of such revival is not only real, it’s getting closer all the time. A University of Kansas law professor is part of a group of scholars working to propose legal framework to address the myriad questions “de-extinction” will bring to the table.

Andrew Torrance, professor of law and Docking Faculty Scholar at KU’s School of Law, recently took part in a de-extinction conference at Stanford University and is crafting suggestions for potential law to deal with the controversial science as it becomes reality.

“I have a weakness for exactly this kind of project,” Torrance said. “It’s very cool from a scientific perspective, plus I think I was like every kid growing up who thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I could see a dinosaur some day?’”

While dinosaurs won’t be revived — the fossils are too old and contain no usable DNA — other more recently extinct creatures such as woolly mammoths, saber-toothed tigers and passenger pigeons could potentially be revived. The biotechnology is mostly in place. What’s not in place is law to address questions such as who would own such revived creatures, how their habitat would be governed, international relations among countries housing such creatures and who would be responsible for potential damages among others. Torrance, who holds a doctorate in biology and law degree from Harvard University, was part of the Harvard conference to address the legality of such matters. Other scholars addressed the ethical and philosophical questions.

“The basic science is already there. You have to somehow get a full genome, which is not a trivial problem, but a lot of those breakthroughs have been made,” Torrance said. “In some ways, though, the technology is not as important as the ethical and legal questions. If you resurrected a mammoth, would you set it loose in Times Square? And who would be liable for the damage it caused?”

Torrance advocates for developing a legal framework to address de-extinction before it’s common practice and says there are precedents that can be used to start the process. At the conference he cited the Endangered Species Act, a popular bipartisan law/legislation that allows for protection of endangered species. The law and its implications must be considered in respect to de-extinction he said, as the incentive to protect endangered creatures might wane if people believe they can simply bring it back in a generation or two.

“It changes the idea of what endangerment means. And it changes the meaning of extinction,” Torrance said. “If a creature can be brought back, was it ever really extinct?”

Torrance also addressed the question of how revived species would affect current ecosystems. He cites numerous laws that are in place to deal with invasive species. The United States and international laws have addressed such questions in many cases, and similar efforts would need to be made to address potential damage or changes revived species could have on modern ecosystems.

Genetic modification is another question domestic and international lawmakers will need to consider, Torrance said. In the United States genetic modification is commonly accepted especially among crops such as corn and wheat, but it is not as freely accepted in other nations. International treaties such as the Cartagena Protocol allow nations to suspend normal trading rules to prevent genetically modified products from entering their country if they object to their presence. Such treaties would need to be considered for revived species, especially considering that many animals tend to migrate or spread across borders, Torrance said.

The first several generations of revived species would almost certainly be genetically modified by definition, he said, especially if scientists need to borrow DNA, even in small amounts, from species related to those being revived.

Torrance and colleagues will continue to craft scholarly articles and policy recommendations for consideration by lawmakers. The time to act is now, Torrance said, because the science will be in place eventually, whether the law is ready.

“I think law is at its worst when it’s reacting,” Torrance said.

By working together proactively, scientists, lawmakers and the public can craft regulations that would prevent many potential problems as well as avoid heavy-handed regulations that would stifle innovation.

“De-extinction is something we do need to regulate, but in proportion to the potential risk it could create,” Torrance said. “The law will react one way or another. I think it would be best if it reacts in a way that’s both beneficial to the science and public interest and in a way that keeps costs minimal.”



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