An entire island population of invasive mice could be eradicated by the single release of 100 engineered mice carrying ‘gene drives’ which spread infertility throughout a population.
The finding comes from a new study which used computer simulations to investigate how gene drives – essentially sets of ‘selfish genes’ which are more likely to pass on to the next generation – spread through a population. The authors examined the impact of several different gene drives which cause sterility in some offspring or prevent mouse embryos from fully developing. The research was published this week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The researchers found that a single introduction of 100 mice carrying a gene drive causing infertility could eradicate an island mouse population of 50,000 within four to five years. What was important, they noted, was that the gene drive should be developed to have multiple targets in the mouse genome. This would allow ‘multiple shots on goal’ and prevent the occurrence of any resistance genes from thwarting the eradication.
In a media release accompanying the research, the authors highlight the potential of using gene drives to eliminate invasive species.
“If viable, this technology offers a humane, targeted solution for invasive species control,” says author Dr Thomas Prowse, an ecologist from the University of Adelaide.
“This could complement or even replace traditional control methods such as culling, trapping and poison baiting, as well as more advanced biocontrols such as rabbit haemorrhagic disease.”
“Our paper indicates that controlling invasive pest populations using gene drives may be feasible, but certainly the hype around this new technology is still some way ahead of the science.”
Read more about the research on Scimex.org
Is New Zealand ready for gene drives?
In all the recent discussion over New Zealand’s Predator Free 2050 goal, there has been a lot of talk about the use of gene drives to tackle invasive species like rats, stoats and possums. A range of experts shared their views in a Q&A produced by the Science Media Centre earlier this year.
Prof Neil Gemmel from the University of Otago said the idea has promise, “but there are many unknowns as to whether this will work in mice, whether the idea can transfer to other species, and whether society is ready to accept a tool that involves genetic modifications that are predicted to race through populations.”
“We will need to do a lot of work in these areas over coming years to quantify the risks and benefits of such strategies to inform the discussions”
Professor Phil Seddon, Director of the University of Otago Wildlife Management Programme, warned that social acceptance of the technology is essential – and will be a perhaps bigger challenge than even getting the technology right.
“We need a careful, controlled, early and successful case study to allay public fears and to demonstrate how environmental release of a GMO might be beneficial for conservation – perhaps getting rid of the mice on a small offshore island, where there are natural barriers to dispersal and the ability to apply conventional control to eradicate the mice should things not work out as planned.
“I think the general public might be more accepting of GMOs for conservation than some people think – we need to give an informed public a chance to consider the issue.”