Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Gene Editing for Conservation Needs In-Built Protection

By Australian Science Media Centre

Researchers have been considering using gene drives to rid New Zealand of invasive pests, but have they adequately estimated the issues and addressed indigenous rights?

Gene drive technology in any implementation is powerful and risky, and thus a precautionary approach to all stages of its development and release is critical. New Zealand already has the most advanced risk management systems in the world for bio­security and the release of new organisms, including genetically modified ones. Gene editing is only an extension of existing genetic modification which, once established in the wild, usually becomes irreversible.

Esvelt and Gemmell (see Browse, p.8) raise a number of pertinent points for once a basic gene drive is established in an ecosystem. However, in discussing the risk associated with hypothetical ecological release of a basic gene drive technology, they overlook a number of critical ecological filters. The ecology of the invasive species and its environment are a wrapper for the entire process. Once a basic gene drive is established in a population it could be hard to undo.

However, for a gene drive to establish in the wild might actually be very difficult, let alone more than once. Laboratory animals must actually be bred in sufficient numbers with the gene edit to release in to the environment such that they mate with the resident population and the gene itself establishes. This is what is always overlooked with the application of this technology, and the authors here make the same overestimation – that establishing, say, rats into a resident population is trivial. It is not. Indeed, all the evidence is to the contrary – that trying to establish rats within a population of already established rats is very difficult.

Although New Zealand is doing no laboratory research into gene drives, we are investigating through computer models how hard it would be to establish a gene drive in the wild. Previous research has shown that you have to introduce a lot of individuals to establish a population of even an invasive species.

Furthermore, genetic work has shown that rats have a strong incumbent advantage, and even when they do hitch-hike on boats they usually are not successful at establishing in new ports when they arrive. So I think here the authors underestimate the ecological challenges of establishment and overestimate the risk of dispersal and establishment.

Esvelt and Gemmell also make the assumption that a gene drive would be a fertility edit. There are other gene edits one could make, especially those that pair the target species with its recipient ecosystem (e.g. imagine trivially giving all rats in New Zealand a peanut butter allergy and then we feed them all peanut butter). Matching the genetic mode of action to an environmental stimuli might be powerful indeed.

When balancing risks we must incorporate uncertainties, such as when ecological consequences may be unknown. However, we will never have complete certainty over how the planet Earth and its ecology functions, so the more pertinent question is: do we understand enough uncertainty to accept the risk?

Esvelt and Gemmell ask if “we want a world in which countries and organizations routinely and unilaterally alter shared ecosystems regardless of the consequences to others” but I think there is already ample evidence that this is exactly what is already happening today (e.g. the United States in the Paris climate accord), and so this form of governance is a much larger issue than for gene drives alone.

Dr James Russell is a conservation biologist at The University of Auckland. He is on the science strategy panel advising the New Zealand government entity Predator Free 2050, and is project leader of the biological heritage national science challenge “high-tech solutions to invasive mammal pests”.

From an indigenous researcher’s perspective, what this paper does do is clearly highlight two growing concerns in the research space.

The first being an increasing lack of cultural accountability in academic journals who seem happy to publish anything without thought, consideration or commentary from the communities those papers have extracted from, taken swipe at, or made promises to. A good example that Prof Gemmell is well aware of is the continued publication of articles that sequence genes of taonga (sacred) species without the permission of the kaitiaki (caretakers), tangata whenua or indigenous communities who relate to those species. PLOS Biology perpetuates, to a lesser degree, that same behaviour by not checking the situation in Aotearoa New Zealand before approving the article for publication.

The second issue is how to build respectful relationships with indigenous peoples/communities. Increasingly researchers are seeking opportunities to work with and engage with indigenous communities (i.e. Māori). Relatively few, however, are actually committed to investing their time into building long-term relationships, despite being continually told that that is what is required.

Some researchers continue to push an extractive model whereby they attempt to take intellectual property from communities in return for “the greater research good”. This model is naïve to the political situations that indigenous communities are operating in, and often places those communities in culturally unsafe positions.

Melanie Mark-Shadbolt is Māori Research Manager – Kaiārahi for the Bio-Protection Research Centre at Lincoln University.