The Legal Questions of De-Extinction

By Matt Klinger

According to a recent New York Times article, scientists are busily at work attempting to resurrect the passenger pigeon from extinction.  More than a billion of the birds once populated the eastern United States, but the last one died in 1914.

Scientists are now sequencing passenger pigeon DNA and developing elaborate plans to recreate the bird's cells, introduce them into an existing type of pigeon, breed the offspring, and eventually train the resulting passenger pigeon-like birds to behave as their "ancestors" did.  With any luck, scientists believe a new population of passenger pigeons could be self-perpetuating by 2060.  

The prospect may seem far-fetched but at least one animal has already been brought back from extinction, even if only briefly.  The possibility of re-creating dead species has some envisioning Jurassic Park-like scenarios where woolly mammoths again roam Siberia.  But, as Stanford Law professors Jacob S. Sherkow and Hank Greely note, the issue raises a host of legal questions.  For instance, could de-extinct species be patented?  Would they be "endangered?" And what regulations, domestic and international, should be in place to govern the process?