De-materializing genetic RESOURCES

Synthetic biology, intellectual property and the ABS bypass

Authored by: Margo A. Bagley

Routledge Handbook of Biodiversity and the Law

Print publication date:  December  2017
Online publication date:  November  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138693302
eBook ISBN: 9781315530857
Adobe ISBN:


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A dagger with a rhino horn handle is quite the status symbol in some parts of the globe, but it will cost you: rhino horn is more expensive by weight than gold, ivory, or cocaine, commanding up to $60,000/kg (Roberts, 2017). Unfortunately, it costs the rhino even more: its life, which is why the trade in rhino products is illegal in most countries. However, demand for rhino horn, for aesthetic as well as traditional medicine purposes, is fueling a poaching epidemic in South Africa that, uncurbed, could result in the extinction of rhinos in as few as ten years. Pembient, Inc. is trying to change that with its genetically engineered, 3-D printed, synthetic rhino horn that is genetically identical to the real thing but involves no loss of life. However, the synthetic biology-based product was developed using rhino DNA, and Pembient is currently negotiating a benefit-sharing arrangement with the South African government, recognizing that country’s sovereign ownership of the genetic resources upon which Pembient’s invention is based. An article discussing Pembient’s efforts claimed that such negotiations were not necessary because Pembient’s founder, Matthew Markus, “could have taken what he needed without the government’s blessing or used a sample from a rhino in a U.S. zoo, but he was wary of Pembient being seen as a ‘biopirate’ looting South Africa for its natural resources” (Roberts, 2017).

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