Written by Florcy Romero, pgEd’s Curriculum and Professional Development Associate
New Zealand is a potential location for the use of new genetic technologies related to environmental concerns. Many species in New Zealand have been threatened by the introduction, related to human activity, of non-native rats and other predators into the islands. Concerns that a quarter of the nation’s unique birds may be driven to extinction by invasive species have motivated the launch of a program known as Predator Free 2050. Their goal is to permanently eradicate predator animals, mainly rats, possums and stoats, by 2050 by using a new approach using genetic tools. This tool, known as a gene drive, is a developing technology that aims to ensure that particular, pre-selected genes are inherited by future generations.
Want to know more about gene drives? Click here for a video on “Gene Drive and Malaria.”
Gene drives may be used in several different ways. Dr. Kevin Esvelt, a biologist at MIT, has been exploring the potential to use gene drives in pest control as well as to “stop Lyme disease by genetically engineering white-footed mice to vaccinate them against Lyme,” with the help of the genome-editing tool CRISPR. While scientists have been using gene drives in laboratories in organisms such as fruit flies and yeast, some groups, such as GBIRD (United States), want to begin using gene drives in the wild. In addition to protecting vulnerable wildlife, other arguments in favor of a plan such as Predator Free 2050 revolve around decreasing the economic loss from food eaten by rodents and the threat these animals pose to New Zealand’s agriculture, horticulture and forestry industries. On the other hand, concerns regarding the Predator Free 2050 plan include whether or not scientists have a right to eliminate an entire species (even one that didn’t hail from New Zealand but is here now due to human activity), and the potential consequences of reshaping the ecosystem.
In addition to ethical discussions, research on the social attitudes towards the use of genetic tools for pest control is underway. One study, described in the Atlantic’s “New Zealand’s War on Rats Could Change the World,” showed that 32 percent of 8,000 people surveyed were in favor of technologies such as gene drives, while 18 percent believed they should never be used, and half were undecided. In addition to public opinion polls, scientists such as Esvelt have made it a priority to involve the communities that would be impacted by any plans to use gene drive technologies. Some of the scientists have recognized the importance of being accountable for potential impacts these plans may have for indigenous communities, in this case the Māori of New Zealand. Recently, Esvelt openly apologized on his blog to the Māori people for not including them early in the development of his “daisy drive” plan, a part of the broader Predator Free initiative. The “daisy drive” system differs from standard gene drives in that the drives only last for a finite number of generations due to their requirement for a “daisy element” – “a form of genetic fuel that is used up as they spread.” This setup means that the effect of the technology is possibly restricted to a more local area.
Want to know more about the “daisy-drive” concept? See “‘Daisy-chain’ gene drive vanishes after a few generations” in the New Scientist.
Many indigenous communities have a close and sacred connection to the environment, including to the land and its inhabitants. Involving Māori scientists and tribal leaders is a first step, but many community members and scientists rightly call for the broader community to have a seat at the table. These conversations would include analyzing the project’s benefits and risks, and its potential impacts on ecosystems and ways of life of a broad spectrum of people. As Esvelt writes, “scientists should hold themselves morally responsible for all the consequences of their research,” and “[i]nviting people who might be affected by a technology to help guide its development is important because any other approach would deny them a voice in decisions that will affect them.”