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Press Release: Opportunities and Knowledge Gaps in Gene Drive Research

Genetic Biocontrol of Invasive Rodents (GBIRd) program partners evaluate the field of gene drive research for conservation and identify areas of interest where additional research is necessary.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Emily Heber, Island Conservation, emily.heber@islandconservation.org, + 1 (661) 332-1652

Invasive rodents are present on 80% of the world’s island groups and pose a significant threat to island and global biodiversity. Removing invasive rodents from islands is a proven way to prevent extinctions, but current technology is predicted to benefit only 15% of islands where invasive species are a threat. Gene drive technology has the potential to be a game-changing new tool and could help take us several steps closer to restoring the remaining 85% of islands.

A new study conducted by the Genetic Biocontrol of Invasive Rodents (GBIRd) program partners, led by John Godwin of North Carolina State University, has identified knowledge gaps and opportunities for further research in gene drives for house mice (Mus musculus). Although various gene drive mechanisms have been proposed for use in invasive mice, leading research focuses on the t-complex and synthetic drives. While synthetic drives have been successful in insects, they have proved challenging to apply in mammals.

The paper identifies a need for further research into the spatial limitations of gene drives to ensure mice with these mechanisms are restricted to their location and are unable to impact unintended populations. The behavior and ecology of invasive mice and gene drive mice is another area of interest where researchers must evaluate the evolutionary fitness of gene drive mice compared to their wildtype counterparts. These components, along with mathematical modeling, will advance and further inform ongoing research into the feasibility and application of this technology.

One of the key findings, and a cornerstone of the GBIRd program, is the necessity for a multidisciplinary approach aimed at increasing the technical feasibility, regulatory framework, and social acceptance of the technology. The authors identified the development of these processes as a vital complement to technical gene drive research.

The GBIRd Partnership

GBIRd brings together world class geneticists, evolutionary biologists, ethicists, risk assessors, math modelers, regulatory experts, social scientists, and conservation professionals to engage one of the most serious threats to biodiversity today: unchecked invasive rodents on islands.

Our not-for-profit conservation and humanitarian mission engages experts from governments, NGOs, and research universities including  CSIROIsland ConservationNorth Carolina State University (more resources), Texas A&M UniversityUniversity of Adelaide, and USDA’s APHIS. Together, we are cautiously investigating the feasibility of, and assessing the social, ethical, and biological risks of, gene-drive modified organisms for eradication of island invasive species. While the science and partnership have been underway for several years, GBIRd’s formalized coordination and strategy emerged in 2016.

Why Islands?

Islands represent both a unique conservation need and opportunity. Islands total only a small fraction of our planet’s land area and host a disproportionately higher rate of extinction and endangerment per unit area than continents. For this reason, investing limited conservation funds on islands provides a high return on investment.

  • There are ~465,000 islands in the world, yet they comprise just 5.3% of the Earth’s terrestrial area.
  • Islands have been epicenters for extinctions: Islands have hosted 75% of known bird, mammal, amphibian and reptile extinctions since 1500.
  • Islands provide critical refuges for highly-threatened species, currently supporting 36% of bird, mammal, amphibian and reptile species that are classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Invasive alien species are a major driver of species extinctions on islands, particularly invasive mammals.

  • Many islands’ species are threatened as a direct consequence of invasive alien species, particularly invasive mammals. Invasive cats and rats are the most damaging invasive species known on islands.
  • Invasive species devour eggs, young and even adults of native animals and plants, spread invasive seeds, and destroy vegetation.

Islands offer hope that we can prevent extinctions and protect biodiversity.

  • Eradication of invasive mammals from islands is a proven conservation tool.
  • More than 1,200 invasive mammal eradications have been attempted on islands worldwide, with an average success rate of 85%.
  • Larger more remote and technically challenging islands are being successfully cleared of invasive species populations each year.
  • Many of these investments have resulted in remarkable stories of restoration success, including the recovery of globally threatened species.

About Island Conservation

Island Conservation prevents extinctions by removing invasive species from islands. To date, we have successfully restored 63 islands worldwide, benefiting 1173 populations of 468 species and subspecies. Working together with local communities, government management agencies, and conservation organizations, we select islands that have the greatest potential for preventing the extinction of globally threatened species.

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