Why GM must be in our toolkit to save endangered island species

To stand the best chance of preventing more extinctions, we must evaluate all possible innovations – including genetic modification – to fully realise the enormous conservation opportunities that islands represent.

An endangered yellow-eyed penguin marches along a beach near Dunedin, New Zealand.

An endangered yellow-eyed penguin marches along a beach near Dunedin, New Zealand. Credit:AP/Tourism New Zealand

As with all new technologies, we must proceed cautiously and assess the feasibility, suitability and associated risks of genetic technologies. A recent paper showing the feasibility of a gene drive in female mice is just one step in a long process.

In theory, gene drives could be used to bias inheritance of specific genes throughout generations of invasive species to eliminate targeted populations. This could involve, for example, modifications that increase the likelihood of inheriting male chromosomes, meaning non-native rats or mice could be eliminated through natural attrition.

Among the potential benefits are the significant reduction in the time and cost of removing invasive species in a more humane way.

But we also need to understand the risks of spreading such a modification to non-target populations, ecosystems and food-security. For example, can we ensure a gene drive rodent


construct works solely on the targeted population to protect against undesired impacts?

There are many unknowns and potential risks must discussed transparently in public forums such as the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity, which met in November and, after much discussion, allowed for ongoing research.

Before we can fully explore the possibility of genetic biocontrol for invasive rodents or other invasive species, we must be clear about the social, ethical and biological risks, and then if and how they can be avoided, minimised or managed.

We must also acknowledge that such a technology could be used inappropriately and must ensure safeguards against the misuse of our own research and development of these tools.

The endangered Lord Howe Woodhen.

The endangered Lord Howe Woodhen. Credit:Alamy

These questions can only be answered with evidence, and for that, we need more research, more dialogue, and more data and analysis.

The case for developing new and better tools is clear – the island restoration community at large has achieved more than 1200 successful eradications to date, helping island communities and biodiversity flourish.

With invasive rodents on more than 80 per cent of the world’s island groups, a business-as-usual scenario means leaving native birds, turtles and other creatures on our world’s islands to the mercy of these predators.

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