Biocontrol has been used successfully in pest management for decades. The arrival of powerful new precision gene editing tools has opened up new possibilities for the genetic biocontrol of entire populations. By overcoming the laws of Mendelian inheritance it is theoretically feasible to push genetic traits specifically into a target population that could ultimately lead to a reduction or even collapse of the population. It works in insects, but will it work in vertebrates (mice, rats, carp)?
The major project objective is to build a framework to assess the knowledge gaps that currently exist, the feasibility and a means to prioritize gene drive in our efforts to control vertebrate pest animals.
The process is based on two guided workshops and off-line discussions with a broad range of key stakeholders that have been identified. It will develop the key components for a framework that can be used to evaluate and prioritise the suitability of different pests for development of appropriate gene drive solutions.
This will include methods to evaluate the readiness level of the data need to develop a gene drive for a pest species, where the knowledge gaps are, the risk analysis required and the pathway for developing social licence and eventual business models for deployment.
The objectives are set in the context of earlier evaluation systems:
Net benefit of investment; this will be to have an evaluated pathway and identified funding sources to begin development of a gene drive project meeting the needs of at least one stakeholder segments. Alternatively the net benefit will be a decision not to make any further investment in gene drive development because gaps or barriers have been identified that cannot be overcome within acceptable timeframes. This will either validate the necessary investments or alternatively preserve significant resources to contribute to traditional control measures or to explore new innovations.
Impacts across five dimensions (demand, supply, risk, environment, social); demand for new tools is quite clear across a range of pest species. This project will provide a decision gate and prioritisation system to determine the potential for supply of this technology as a control tool for particular pests and will involve the scoping of risk, environmental benefit and the social dimensions that this could deliver.
Changes in practice and behaviour (outcomes – qualitative and quantitative); the outputs from this project will provide a balanced analysis of the benefits and risks and all relevant dimensions of gene drive which will be used to engage with the key stakeholders that could support the technical development of gene drive should this be the final decision. Alternatively this outcome will enable the CISS stakeholders to shelve the technology, move forward and direct their investment to other technologies.
The project receives funding from the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment
August 2020 update:
A facilitated stakeholder workshop was held in February 2020 in Canberra, Australia. Thirty-four external participants representing NGOs, industry organisations, state and federal government departments, universities, and research units attended. A range of policy and regulatory staff, wildlife managers, geneticists, ecologists, and social scientists were also present.
When asked to consider which priority pests in Australia might be most efficacious for genetic biocontrol, participants most commonly listed rodents and rabbits. The commonly cited reasons for why these pests might be most amenable were: species impact, fecundity, existing knowledge about species’ biology, and laboratory/controlled trial-ability. This primary qualitative and quantitative data is currently being assessed and analysed.
February 2020 update:
A steering committee has been formed and convened its inaugural meeting ahead of planning for a stakeholder workshop which was held in February 2020. This workshop aimed to kickstart the primary elements of the project and, together with analysis of an online survey and the workshop results using the Delphi Method, will inform the direction taken going forward. A subset of pest species has been selected, and a second Survey and Workshop will be conducted in the second half of 2020 where a prioritisation framework will be developed and tested using case studies.