Conservationists are looking at using the emerging “gene drive” genetic editing technology to wipe out populations of invasive species, but scientists are warning the wider consequences could be disastrous.
The Sustainability Council's executive director Simon Terry has been pushing the message that the technology requires urgent global regulation.
He tells Afternoons’ Jesse Mulligan the technology can be used to make a species infertile, essentially spreading down the generations and wiping it out relatively quickly.
He says New Zealand needs to be part of the international discussion of rules around the technology, which has the potential to backfire.
“If it only takes a few individuals to start a chain reaction in another population then the ethics of this … are already very serious,” he says.
“For example, the possums are regarded as a pest here but in Australia they are a protected species,” he says.
“If we wanted to, and could, launch something targeting eradication of possums in New Zealand the Australian academy of Sciences believes such a possum would eventually end up on its shores.
“If you got enough of them then they could face extinction of a species that they value.”
He says that although it’s not been perfected, the science and technology behind the idea is developing rapidly, and rules - international laws - need to be established before it becomes a reality.
“The fruit flies experiments have also shown up resistance where after a few generations the organism fights back and tries to discipline the introduced gene.
“The first mouse experiment is under way, and we actually had a consortium which was backed by US defence department money scouting around New Zealand to see if there was a suitable island to do a first outdoor trial on eradicating gene drive mice.”
However, he says the outcry from the scientific community suggests islands are not enough of a barrier to stop the spread of edited genes.
"The responses that have come in as people study this increasingly are that an island doesn’t give you the sanctuary you’d like, and says although a possum is unlikely to swim to Australia, there are other ways it could arrive.
“I don’t think you need to go very far back in New Zealand’s history to look at other ways things happen.
“Remember the rabbit calicivirus was banned here, but a farmer somewhere, it’s presumed, decided of their own volition to bring it to have a go at rabbits.
“We’ve seen examples recently also with the Fukushima tidal wave where the US suddenly found an enormous variety of new species showed up by what was called tidal wave rafting.”
He says the inventor of the gene drive concept, MIT’s Kevin Esvelt, has publicly warned about making use of the original concept.
“One that had no restriction on how many generations that trait could be passed through and this thing could go global.”
“He’s now done a very public recant … he would be very much against using it in the wild.”