WASHINGTON—A U.S. patent board ruling last month significantly boosts the odds for approval of some of the pending applications for patents on genetically engineered animals.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences, while rejecting for other reasons an application for a patent on an oyster, ruled that there is no legal reason why such patent protection should be denied.

The decision may lead eventually to the marketing of new breeds of faster-growing poultry or leaner livestock, for example, and to laboratory animals susceptible to human diseases or otherwise tailored for research. Meanwhile, its moral and ethical implications are sure to spark heated debate.

U.S. patent protection was limited to inanimate objects until 1980, when the Supreme Court ruled in Diamond v. Chakrabarty that genetically altered bacteria developed by microbiologist Ananda Chakrabarty fell within the scope of patent law. In 1985 the Board of Patent Appeals...

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