05/02/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT
Something new is abroad on the Earth, a creature such as never before has walked or scuttled across its surface. The newcomer is a mouse—nameless as yet, though it has a number—spawned in a lab at Harvard and just sanctioned by the U.S. Patent Office. It looks ordinary enough: white, with little pink eyes and quivering whiskers. But this mouse has one crucial difference: It is the first animal ever to be patented.
Thanks to genetic finagling, this mouse—you can call it Patent No. 4,736,866—is far more vulnerable to breast cancer than ordinary mice. The product of transgenic breeding, in which genes from one creature are transplanted in another of the same species, No. 4,736,866 now stands at the center of a scientific uproar.
Genetic tinkering is nothing new. Dr. Philip Leder and his colleague Dr. Timothy Stewart created the Harvard mouse's ancestor back in 1982 to gain a better understanding of the genetic basis for breast cancer. Other researchers dream of creating and then procreating cows that give more milk or otherwise spiffing up Mother Nature. What is new is the granting of a patent to such a Frankenstein concoction (although altered microorganisms have been patented), which raises the specter of marketing whole species. Critics of genetic engineering include the National Council of Churches and the National Farmers Union, and some foes envision a dystopian bestiary in which strange creatures bolt from their laboratories and run wild, wreaking havoc with the environment and contaminating their species. Says Margaret Mellon, a lawyer with the National Wildlife Federation's National Biotechnology Policy Center: "We can take this one mouse at a time, wake up in 10 years and say, 'Hey, we didn't know what was going on.' Or we can try to get control of the technology now." The opponents call for a moratorium on patents for genetically altered animals—and a lot more public debate about the implications of monkeying around with mice or other creatures great and small.