Exploring pest control through genetics

University of Otago researchers Anna Clark and Dr Alana Alexander are investigating how an...
University of Otago researchers Anna Clark and Dr Alana Alexander are investigating how an understanding of pest species genetics could be used to help New Zealand reach its Predator Free 2050 goals. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
The war on pests is being brought to a molecular level by Otago researchers.

University of Otago postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers Anna Clark and Dr Alana Alexander are two of six university-based researchers now supported by Predator Free 2050 Ltd and the Jobs for Nature fund as they investigate cutting-edge methods to help eliminate introduced predators.

Rather than trapping brushtail possums, stoats, rats or mice, Miss Clark is using theoretical modelling to understand new genetic technology that might be used to control the pest species.

By entering ecological and genetic data into computer models, creating algorithms around how the species interact and then running those programmes over time she is able to understand how introduced genetic traits might spread through a population.

Although only theoretical at present, these "gene drives" would involve genetically modifying a few initial individuals, and then releasing them into the environment where over a series of generations there would be change in the genetics of a population.

If predator control workers could target the right genes, such as reproductive genes, it could lead to a population collapse, she said.

Her PhD supervisor, Dr Alexander, is looking at the very genes that could bring about the population collapse in possums.

Dr Alexander said because New Zealand possums came from two distinct Australian possum groups, Tasmanian and mainland possums, she might be able to isolate the genes best suited to do the kind of work Miss Clark was modelling.

But ensuring people were at ease with the science was also a crucial part of her project.

Dr Alexander has Ngapuhi and Te Hikutu heritage and working to make sure Maori were involved in the predator free programme was an essential part of her work as well, she said.

"Of course, the biggest problem with gene drives is the social licence," Dr Alexander said.

"We can talk about the science and what risks there are from a scientific perspective, and what benefits there are.

"Because as bad as some people may find genetic modification, a lot of people find 1080 even worse.

"We’re talking about weighing up different methods for controlling pests on the landscape; it may be that for some folks the benefits of this new technology might outweigh the costs.

"But making sure people are aware of what those are, so they can make a culturally informed decision themselves about whether they want to pursue that technology, is really important."

Predator Free 2050 Ltd science director Prof Dan Tompkins said Miss Clark and Dr Alexander were seeking the kind of knowledge New Zealanders needed to know to decide whether these genetic control avenues were worth pursuing or not.

In total, six young researchers, including the two Dunedin scientists, were awarded funding this month.

hamish.maclean@odt.co.nz

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