9 Jul 2020

Stoat DNA sequenced

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 1:33 pm on 9 July 2020

The genetic code for our most wanted pest, the stoat, has been revealed. 

The stoat genome, created by a team of Kiwi and international scientists, is one of the highest quality vertebrate genomes ever produced. 

Dr Andrew Veale, a verterbrate pest ecologist with Landcare Research, told Jesse Mulligan it was the result of many years work. 

Stoat

Stoat Photo: 123RF

“And now we can start using it on conservation research,” he says.

Stoats are a huge problem in New Zealand, being a major predator of native birds.

“They are particularly bad in many ways, they are very dispersive, so there’s one that was once recorded going 65km over just a few weeks.

“They swim to islands up to 3 to 5km offshore, and they require constant food, so they kill everything when they get there.”

There have been cases where a single stoat has killed all of the saddleback in a population, he says.

Because they are long, thin animals, and loose a lot of heat, they must eat constantly, Dr Veale says.

“That is bad in two ways. One, they eat a lot and if they don’t eat they’ll die and so they kill in excess just in case tomorrow if they don’t have any food ‘oh well I’ll go back to that one I killed yesterday’.

“If they get into the chicken hutch they kill all the chickens and if they get into a sea bird colony they kill all the sea birds.”

And practically noting predates them, the odd feral cat and possibly birds of prey but they have, he says, pretty much free rein in New Zealand.

The newly-sequenced genome gives them a blueprint for making a stoat, he says.

“It has all the information there, if we were able to synthesise it and stick it into an egg we could make stoat.

“And therefore, we have all the information potentially to break a stoat and also just to learn about them.”

This knowledge could be used for forensics, for learning about how related individuals are and potentially for species specific toxins, he says.

“If we have the exact receptors we can design toxins in the future that will only target very specific things in specific ways and then design a control.”

This kind of breakthrough is needed if New Zealand is to be Predator Free by 2050.

“Right now, it is not possible to eradicate all those pest species from the country and so we need magical future technology to do that.

“To do magical future technology we need blue sky research on ‘this is how it all works’ and then we can hopefully find something from that will enable us to control them better.”

Although his research is aimed at the stoat’s demise in New Zealand, they are not a pest anywhere else and are even endangered in some parts of the world – he admires the animal

“They are amazing, charismatic animals and extreme athletes.

“If you’ve ever seen footage of them chasing rabbits down, they are the cheetah of a miniature world. They’re just made of muscle, I have dissected many of them, there is no fat, they are just pure muscle.”

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