Fertility strategy could revolutionise pest management

The University of Otago's Prof Neil Gemmell (left) and PhD candidate Aidin Jalilzadeh, pictured with some stuffed ferrets at Otago Museum, are working on a new way of controlling pest populations. Photo by Craig Baxter.
The University of Otago's Prof Neil Gemmell (left) and PhD candidate Aidin Jalilzadeh, pictured with some stuffed ferrets at Otago Museum, are working on a new way of controlling pest populations. Photo by Craig Baxter.
A new approach to pest control involving introducing ''trojan females'' into animal populations could be a ''game-changer'', a University of Otago researcher says.

Researchers from Otago University, the University of Western Australia, the Ministry for Primary Industries and Landcare Research last week published findings about the proposed technique, which involved introducing into pest populations ''trojan females'' with mutations that meant they produced sterile male offspring.

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, said the technique harnessed naturally occurring mutations that reduced male fertility while having little or no impact on females.

The study's lead author, Prof Neil Gemmell, from Otago University, said the technique could be a ''game-changer'' in reducing the global impact of pests in a non-lethal way.

''Conventional approaches to pest management usually involve lethal control, but such approaches are costly, of varying efficiency, and often have ethical issues,'' Prof Gemmell said.

The technique could be used across a broad range of pest species, including rats and disease-carrying insects such as mosquitoes. This meant the technique had the potential to be ''pretty close'' to a ''silver bullet'' when it came to pest control.

Positives of the technique included the fact it was reversible and it did not require genetic modification, with the mutation occurring naturally, Prof Gemmell said.

The technique required breeding females with the mutation in captivity and releasing them into wild populations.

The researchers were now working on putting the theory into practice, with the Ministry for Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) providing a $1 million grant to develop a proof of concept.

The benefits of the technique had the potential to be huge, with malaria killing more than one million people each year and rats estimated to spoil or damage up to 17% of food production in some countries.

The leader of the MBIE project, Dr Dan Tompkins, of Landcare Research, said once the concept had been proved in the lab, it would seek to apply the technology as soon as possible.

''We will be looking to rapidly apply this new technology platform to the benefit of agriculture, human health and biodiversity, both within New Zealand and globally,'' Dr Tompkins said.

- vaughan.elder@odt.co.nz

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