Gene drive technology
The New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge welcomes public discussion on science-based options for tackling New Zealand’s biodiversity challenges, including the perspective piece by Professors Kevin Esvelt and Neil Gemmell discussing gene-drive technology for application to achieve Predator Free 2050.
This 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. A large amount of research effort is being harnessed via our 17 Challenge parties, including scientists in all 8 universities and 7 Crown Research Institutes.
Via the Biological Heritage Challenge we have advocated for a cautious and responsible approach to new technologies. In particular, we have focused on exploratory underpinning research, such as 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 perhaps most importantly, on social research to gain a better understanding of the New Zealand public's perceptions of the use of genetic and other technologies for mammal pest control.
We are also working closely with international colleagues on exploratory research on gene editing technologies. However, currently there is no research being conducted in NZ to develop gene drives for NZ's Predator-Free targets for eradication (possums, rats, and stoats). Our approach has been 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.
Our research is being done in full partnership with Māori - scientists, communities, and iwi leaders. We are also working closely with Predator-Free 2050, Genomics Aotearoa, and the Department of Conservation to coordinate and align New Zealand’s research efforts.
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.
Information on Predator Free 2050 Ltd.
The ability to cost-effectively keep rats, stoats and possums at zero density will be transformational for New Zealand conservation. Our ultimate outcome is to enable scaling-up of current efforts to landscape-scale pest freedom. This project will accelerate the provision of improved tools, methodologies and strategies for mammal pest control in general and for local elimination in particular. They will be socially acceptable, cost-effective and targeted next-generation technologies that have been proven at pilot scale to effectively eliminate small mammal pests.
Scientists designing pest control methods know that they are part of a wider society and there is a need to understand and listen to the public’s views about novel technologies. Dr Edy MacDonald and her co-researchers are working nationally to understand what different groups feel about new wide-scale pest control that might be developed, starting with tools for the control of wasps and rats.
To achieve the vision of Predator Free New Zealand 2050 researchers need to develop novel tools and technologies for cost-effective, landscape-scale control, eradication and surveillance of small mammal pests. However, moving any new control measures from the lab to the landscape will be as much of a social challenge as it is a biological challenge, and researchers need to find ways to include the public early and often in discussing predator control plans, and allowing people to have a say in which methods are deployed. In response to this need a Bioethics Panel was co-convened by Drs Emily Parke (Philosophy) and James Russell (Biology) from the University of Auckland under the auspices of the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge.