Genetic advance promising for pest control

Neil Gemmell.
Neil Gemmell.
University of Otago anatomy department head Prof Neil Gemmell is ''excited'' that a novel approach using ''Trojan females'' could one day result in pests such as mice and wasps being eradicated.

Prof Gemmell and co-authors report on their success in making their theory about Trojan fruit flies a reality in the laboratory in a paper outlining a ''world-first proof of concept'' and published by eLife.

There was also a ''great deal of interest'' in this approach to help control rats, possums and stoats as part of the Government's Predator Free 2050 goal.''

Prof Gemmell, who heads the Otago anatomy department, says the ''Trojan female technique'' (TFT) - in which females pass on genes that make male offspring infertile - offered pest-control advantages that were likely to help reach the 2050 goal.

Prof Gemmell had earlier published a paper, in 2004, showing that this population-control approach was theoretically possible.

The new technique uses naturally occurring mutations in mitochondrial DNA that affect male, but not female, fertility and fitness.

Mitochondria are the ''power generators'' of a cell.

''The essence of our idea is to use these mitochondrial mutations to produce continuous, self-sustaining biological control,'' he said.

Otago researchers had earlier discovered that, as a byproduct of the maternal inheritance of mitochondrial DNA, mutations that affected only males could occur quite commonly, potentially contributing to fertility issues.

Earlier computer modelling showed this approach looked ''very promising'' as a potential form of pest control but this recent ''world first'' development showed it was now moving closer to reality.

The continuing study reflects a close collaboration with scientists at Landcare Research, AgResearch and Monash University.

Prof Gemmell says broadening the technique to introduce Trojan females into wasp and pasture weevil populations was already under way, with funding from the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

This new approach could become an ''important part of a growing arsenal'' of tools to control pests, he said.

Pests are estimated to cost New Zealand about $3.3 billion a year through lost productivity and heavily damage native fauna and flora.

john.gibb@odt.co.nz

 

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