Scientists explore potential to manipulate genes to control invasive species

31 January 2020

Scientists are manipulating genes that could solve environmental sustainability and conservation problems in Australian environments.

Currently being developed to stop mosquitoes spreading malaria in Africa, researchers are exploring how it could also be used to control invasive species – such as mice and feral cats.

But social science experts believe the governance challenges may be significant and need to be thought through before the science becomes conservation policy.

Responding to this need, experts from The University of Queensland and the University of Exeter are working together on a study to explore the governance challenge of gene drives.

Director of UQ’s Centre for Policy Futures Professor Karen Hussey said this partnership will begin the important process of developing a research agenda for gene drive governance in climate adaptation and conservation.

“We will identify case studies where the technology might address climate adaptation and conservation needs in Australia, the potential risks and concerns raised, and the governance architecture needed to ensure the risks are identified, avoided or managed, as appropriate,” Professor Hussey said.

“Working with a network of researchers at our respective institutions, as well as with a handful of regulators engaged in environmental conservation, our study aims to better understand the opportunities, limitations and risks of using gene technology for environmental conservation,” she said.

Experts will work with those working to protect Australia’s environment to explore whether gene drive technology might help them and if so, how it should be regulated.

This could include protecting coral reefs blighted by increasing oceanic temperatures, or by protecting islands from rodents by eradicating males in the species.

Led by Professor Sarah Hartley, an expert in gene drive governance from the University of Exeter, and Professor Karen Hussey, this interdisciplinary team also includes UQ environmental sustainability governance academic Dr Pedro Fieldman and Drs Katie Ledingham and Caroline McCalman from the University of Exeter Business School.

Professor Hartley said gene drive technology has the potential to help improve conservation efforts.

“We want to hear about what people working in the field need from this technology, and the project enables them to have a say in how it is developed,” Professor Hartley said.

“It will allow us to understand the challenges and realities faced by those working to protect the environment, and how this can shape gene drive technology so it is better able to address problems,” she said.

Those involved in the partnership will seek to understand the governance challenges associated with the movement of gene drive into the conservation and environmental domain which is critical to determine whether and how the technology is developed and deployed.