GBIRd Funding - Role of DARPA

The New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge, its host Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, Predator-Free 2050 Ltd, and the Department of Conservation have been working together following the New Zealand Herald Story on the role of the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in New Zealand research into gene editing as a pest control measure.

The main messages are:

  • Manaaki Whenua, DOC, Predator free 2050 and New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge do not receive funding from DARPA.
  • These organisations do not directly collaborate with or share research with DARPA, but may benefit from using expertise that DARPA also fund.
  • There is no mammalian gene drive technology research targeting mammalian pests occurring in New Zealand.
  • The use of gene drive technology would need to go through the full regulatory process and the Government would ensure that there was appropriate public engagement in any decision making.
  • There has been some discussion between NZ and overseas scientists regarding a wide range of predator free technology including trapping, lures, toxins and gene editing.
  • This is a common approach amongst the science community in exploring and discussing the unknown and what might be possible in the future. However they also are very clear that any use of new or novel technologies will require the appropriate regulatory processes and public engagement.
  • Predator control research is a shared focus for the above organisations. Genetic techniques form only a small part of our collective research focus in this area.

With respect to our Challenge, here is the current state of play with respect to our position on gene drive technologies.

  • The New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge was established to tackle the biggest threats to New Zealand’s environment. Small mammal predators are one of the biggest threats to New Zealand’s biodiversity, and our approach has always been to explore novel solutions to scale up pest control.
  • The New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge is not currently funding any research to develop gene drive technologies for invasive mammal pests.
  • Any future research on gene drives for mammal pest control would require full New Zealand regulatory approval through existing processes governed by the EPA.
  • The Challenge’s approach has been to conduct social and bioethics research to gain a better understanding of the public's perspectives on future use of genetic and genomic technologies whilst cautiously exploring a wide range of technological options.
  • Those technological options include: basic genome sequencing of pest mammals and wasps, development of species-specific toxins, creation of new ‘super lures’ to attract pests to traps and bait stations, and computer simulations of a range of pest control strategies.
  • Social research includes: surveys to gain a better understanding of the New Zealand public's perceptions of the use of genetic and other technologies for mammal pest control. This social science project is focused on novel rodent and wasp control technologies, including the use of gene drives. Results from the first nation-wide survey exploring New Zealanders’ attitudes towards, and acceptance of, novel pest control methods (new toxin, gene drive, trojan female) have recently become available (although have not been fully analysed). The results serve as both a baseline for the current understanding and acceptance of new techniques while also identifying the underlying values New Zealanders hold in order to develop perspectives and provide insights for more effective engagement and discussion.
  • We have formed a bioethics panel of 11 people, consisting of experts in genetics, law, indigenous worldviews and ecology, a hunter and a psychologist to advise on social and ethical issues relating to the development of technological options, including gene drives.
  • Our research is being done in full partnership with Māori – scientists, communities, and iwi leaders. We are also working closely with Predator-Free 2050, Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research, Genomics Aotearoa, and the Department of Conservation to coordinate and align New Zealand’s research efforts.
  • The New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge welcomes public discussion on science-based options for tackling New Zealand’s biodiversity challenges. Ultimately, it will be up to the public of New Zealand to decide what technologies are acceptable, balanced against the need to secure a future for threatened and endangered biodiversity.
  • Research into new genetic tools for a wide range of applications is advancing rapidly and it is important that New Zealand scientists play a role in that work in order to be fully informed about the potential benefits and risks such technologies may offer. Implementation of any new approaches will require clear public support and robust scientific debate as to the safety and efficacy of the technology.
  • The Challenge has no agreement with DARPA. The Challenge would be required by our Governance Board and that of our Challenge Host (Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research) to carry out due diligence prior to co-funding any future research contracts involving international collaborators.
  • The Challenge has funded Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research ($50,000NZD) to strengthen existing international relationships including with GBIRd, in line with the strategic intent of our Governance Board to keep New Zealand scientists aligned with international efforts to eradicate invasive pests.

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