Predator Free NZ – Expert Q&A

Press Release – Science Media Centre

Nearly six months ago the Government announced it would aim for a Predator Free New Zealand by 2050.Predator Free NZ – Expert Q&A

17 January 2017

Nearly six months ago the Government announced it would aim for a Predator Free New Zealand by 2050.

We asked experts about the tools needed to pull off the audacious plan and what the hurdles to success might be.

Please feel free to use these comments in your reporting.This is an abridged version – you can access the full version on scimex.org along with accompanying resources.

Professor Neil Gemmell, University of Otago

Assistant Professor Kevin Esvelt, MIT

Dr James Russell, University of Auckland

Dr Andrea Byrom, Director, Biological Heritage National Science Challenge

Professor Carolyn King, University of Waikato

Professor Charles Daugherty, Victoria University of Wellington

Professor Phil Seddon, University of Otago

Professor Neil Gemmell, Professor of Reproduction and Genomics, Department of Anatomy, University of Otago:

The use of genetic engineering has been mentioned as a potential avenue to the eradication of pests. What possible technologies does this encompass and how might these work?

“I suspect genetic technologies will be the key to developing pest control that is species-specific, works at a large scale, and is cheap and persistent.

“Fundamentally these will predominately focus on exploiting genetic weaknesses in a given species, and I suspect key areas to target will be around reducing reproductive potential so that populations cannot persist.

“Prior work surveying people’s view on issues such as possum control suggests that there is more public support for tools that might impair an animal’s fertility compared with any other form of manipulation or control measure that may cause the animal harm and suffering.”

What are the barriers to using genetic techniques to control pest populations?

“The first target of eradicating a pest species by 2025 is only eight years away, this is likely going to be hard to achieve. If we start today we need six months to plan, likely several years in the lab, then a few years for controlled field trials, before eventual deployment at landscape scales, which will take massive effort and years to achieve eradication.

“This is the New Zealand version of the space-race and we need commitment and resource to achieve this. Likely a quasi-business/military model as seen during the space-race might be needed to achieve this goal.”

Assistant Professor Kevin Esvelt, Head of the Sculpting Evolution Group at the MIT Media Lab:

Note: A.Prof Esvelt is leading a team developing gene drives and ‘daisy drives’: more information.

Has your work identified any risks associated with potential genetic control measures?

“There are two basic kinds of gene drive: those that will affect a local population and then stop, and those that are likely to spread globally. Standard CRISPR-based gene drives are extraordinarily efficient at copying themselves, so it takes very few escaped organisms for them to spread.

“To be blunt, I am highly sceptical that these global drive systems can be reliably contained, and strongly recommend against their use for conservation.

“Local CRISPR-based drive systems such the ‘daisy drives’, which my lab are developing, are still early in development.

“It’s important to note that humanity has no experience engineering systems anticipated to evolve outside of our control. We’re developing nematode worms, which reproduce twice per week and are readily grown in the hundreds of millions, as a model in which to study gene drives in the laboratory. Since evolution is a numbers game, we need to run experiments on populations of comparable size to those we anticipate affecting in the wild in order to predict the behaviour of these systems once released.

“CRISPR-based gene drive systems are unfailingly detectable by sequencing, spread slowly over generations, and are readily blocked and overwritten in the event that something goes wrong. However, we haven’t yet demonstrated a way to reliably restore populations to their original genomic sequences, though we’re actively working on it.”

Dr James Russell, Conservation Biologist, University of Auckland:

How important is it that we get this right? What is at stake and how will NZ benefit from these outcomes?

“It’s critical that we ramp-up our efforts to preserve our native species in order to prevent any more of them going extinct. It is no longer sufficient just to rely on their conservation in the ‘back-country’ in the face of pervasive threats such as invasive species and climate change. It is, therefore, important that we find solutions for their conservation which have longevity and provide good returns on conservation investment. Otherwise, we risk wasting labour and resources. To that end, we do have to make sure PFNZ is implemented properly, so that it doesn’t have unintended side effects, or distract or delay from other urgent conservation issues.

“It won’t just be New Zealand’s native species that benefit from PFNZ though. Benefits of eradicating these eight mammals will also extend to primary industries – where invasive pests are vectors of disease – as well as offer boosts to tourism and public health. Generally, the economic benefits of eradicating these eight species are predicted to outweigh the costs, especially when you consider that we already invest millions every year in their control just to stay in a ‘holding pattern’.”

Dr Andrea Byrom, Director, Biological Heritage National Science Challenge:

The announcement of the initiative came with additional funding; what sorts of technologies or programs should be advanced in order to get an effective technology mix?

“People always ask about the new technologies for killing pests or reducing their populations to extremely low numbers. There is no question that we will need new tools in the toolkit. For example, we will need to re-consider biological control, which is a catch-all term for approaches like causing infertility in mammals or using a virus to reduce a population to very low levels.

“There are also promising new methods such as ‘gene drives’ that are being discussed, which are a new method of breeding an all-male line into a pest population until eventually it declines to extinction with no females to breed with. This all sounds futuristic and scary to most people, but the reality is that there are many technological hurdles to overcome in the world’s laboratories before we can apply these technologies in a field situation (many years down the track), and when we do take them to the field, we could trial them on a remote island first, which would guard against any risk of an unwanted organism escaping.

“I would prefer that we take a step back and consider the wider picture, and in my mind there are issues other than a technological ‘fix’ that are equally important. For example: will we need to alter legislation to allow the release of a virus or new organism into the environment? How should we make use of existing tools in the toolkit, as well as developing new ones? Should we begin with peninsulas or islands, and how should we ‘roll out’ predator-free status across the North and South Island? How will we respond to public concerns about new technologies? How will other pests respond when rats, stoats and possums are removed? And how can we incentivise the level of investment required to make PFNZ a reality?

“All these questions point to the need for a ‘whole system’ approach: thinking about all the pieces of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle together rather than one piece at a time. But it will be worth it.”

Professor Carolyn King, University of Waikato:

The goals for Predator Free NZ were ambitious but do you think it’s possible for the project to meets its targets by 2050 using current methods and technologies?

“No, but ongoing improvements and wider use of current technology are essential to minimise short-term damage to vulnerable populations. We must do whatever we can to protect what is left of our heritage from continuing stress, otherwise, by the time it becomes possible to achieve eradication, there may not be much left.

“We must accept that at this stage, pests removed can always be replaced, so pest control is like cleaning toilets, you just have to keep on doing it. Above all, it’s important not to get carried away with ideas that turn out to be impractical, as these exhaust everyone’s emotional capital and lead them to give up. There is no need to despair, only to be realistic, and patient.”

What do you think the main challenges will be to eradicating the target species?

“Without any doubt, the main challenge is to accelerate fertility control or, if possible, render impossible any breeding and reinvasion of the pests removed. Killing pests is easy and getting easier – but the most important thing is not how many are killed, but how many were left, and how quickly those that are removed can be replaced.

“Preventing that is MUCH more difficult, which is why we still have pests after centuries of throwing everything we can think of at them.”

Professor Charles Daugherty, Emeritus Professor of Ecology, Victoria University of Wellington:

How important will public buy-in and support be to achieving the PFNZ goals?

“Public support is, in many respects, the single most important key to success. New programmes to educate the public to understand the need for predator removal and the many benefits that will arise from doing so will need to be implemented in coming years. Many schools already contribute significantly. People often do not understand, for example, that doing nothing regarding introduced pest species is a decision to impose large ongoing costs on all New Zealanders – for example, on our national wealth arising from dairy, horticulture and tourism.

“Doing nothing is also a decision to violate our national and international commitments. The New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy 2000 – 2020 commits us to stopping the decline of indigenous biodiversity. Internationally, New Zealand has been a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity since 1993. This commits us to the same goal – halting the decline in indigenous biodiversity, and predator control is a key element of achieving this goal.

“We have a simple choice as a nation: eradicate the most dangerous introduced predatory species, or accept that they will eradicate our native species. Only New Zealanders can save our rarest and most unique species, which, like the kiwi, are often national symbols.”

Professor Phil Seddon, Director, University of Otago Wildlife Management Programme:

What are the barriers or risks to using genetic techniques to control pest populations?

“Take the risks of GMO crops and livestock, then imagine that the modified organisms will not be confined to field or paddock but will be released to range freely in the environment. Environmental release of GMOs introduces new levels of risk and uncertainty, such as unanticipated expression of new genetic sequences, or the undesirable transfer of the modification to other species.

“A major barrier will be public acceptance in the face of the ‘Monsanto effect’, whereby GMOs are seen as being tied to big business and driven by corporate interests rather than having environmental and human health concerns a priority.”

Is it important that such tools are socially accepted?

“This is essential and will be a perhaps bigger challenge than even getting the technology right. We need a careful, controlled, early and successful case study to allay public fears and to demonstrate how environmental release of a GMO might be beneficial for conservation – perhaps getting rid of the mice on a small offshore island, where there are natural barriers to dispersal and the ability to apply conventional control to eradicate the mice should things not work out as planned.

“I think the general public might be more accepting of GMOs for conservation than some people think – we need to give an informed public a chance to consider the issue.”

**This is an abridged Q&A, read the full version on scimex.org**

Conflict of interest statements

Neil Gemmell

A) AgResearch endowed my chair, but have no role in governing my research or position.

B) I currently have funding to pursue some aspects of the work outlined below (notably work on Trojan Females and Gene Drives) as part of the biosecurity control programme run as part of the Biological Heritage NSC. I may stand for my research interests to benefit further if some of these ideas mainstream into PFNZ2050.

Kevin Esvelt

Because I publicly described CRISPR gene drive technology and its capabilities, I hold myself morally responsible for the consequences.

I am a listed inventor on several patents filed by Harvard and MIT on CRISPR-based gene drive systems, which I currently hope to leverage in order to require open research and adequate safeguards in this field. I have no commercially relevant interests and favour a temporary moratorium on for-profit applications of the technology.

My laboratory is currently exploring the possibility of building daisy suppression drive systems that would spread infertility in mice and rats, though we have not yet begun experiments in these organisms. We will make our plans publicly available and invite comments and criticism, including from New Zealand, before we begin.

James Russell

10% of my salary is paid for by Zero Invasive Predators. I am the project leader for an MBIE grant on high tech solutions to invasive mammal pests (Biological Heritage National Science Challenge). I have previously received funding from the Department of Conservation.

Charles Daugherty

I have some relevant connections that are not conflicts, including:

Trustee, Predator Free New Zealand. This is different from and preceded Predator Free 2050); our chair is Sir Rob Fenwick, who is also on the board of PF2050 Ltd. PFNZ was formed about three years ago to develop the concept of a predator free NZ and advance the concept in the public arena.

Board member, Zero Invasive Predators Ltd. This is a company formed with a grant from the NEXT Foundation and co-funding from the Department of Conservation to develop new technologies for detection, eradication, and exclusion of predatory mammalian species.

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