New genetic technologies could help address the rise of invasives through a number of ways, one of which is called gene drive. Gene drive can determine the sex of offspring, reducing the number of animals able to reproduce, and therefore over time driving down populations.
Researchers from CSIRO surveyed more than 3,800 people across Australia to understand public perceptions of using gene drive on feral cats. The research found 86 per cent of people were at least moderately supportive for the local implementation of gene drive technology to manage invasive feral cat species in their local area.
Feral cats kill about 3.2 million mammals, 1.2 million birds, 1.9 million reptiles and 250,000 frogs per day in Australia, most of which are native species. They have been a main driver of 27 animal extinctions in Australia, including the Macquarie parakeet, and are one of the most economically costly invasive species to manage. Invasive plant and animal species are estimated to cost Australia around $25 billion a year, compounding the environmental impacts of extinction and biodiversity loss.
CSIRO scientist and co-author of the report Public perspectives towards using gene drive for invasive species management in Australia, Dr Aditi Mankad, said synthetic biology was a relatively new area of science that like other new areas of science, needed to involve consideration of social risks, benefits and values.
"The results showed respondents were significantly more likely to support the use of gene drive technology if there was a perceived problem of invasive species in their local neighbourhood," Dr Mankad said.
"Eighty-six per cent of participants were moderately to strongly supportive of gene technology to control feral cats in their local area, as opposed to 11 per cent who indicated little or no support.
"Although we are still a long way off this science being implemented, it is important to start the conversations with the public early."
CSIRO researcher in Environmental and Synthetic Genomics, Dr Owain Edwards, said that Australia was playing a leading role in the global effort to develop gene drive technologies.
"Current methods for managing the control of invasives including baiting, trapping and shooting, which pose many challenges," Dr Edwards said.
"Feral cats are an ideal candidate for gene drive research given that their reproductive rates are up to three litters a year, which greatly outpaces conventional measures.
"Given the possible use of gene drive technology for other pests, including feral pigs, rabbits and mice, the study is an important step forward in informing policy-makers, the public, and the research community about societal views on the development of possible new synthetic biology applications in Australia."
What is a gene drive?
A gene drive is the mechanism by which a specific genetic trait can be spread through a pest population’s DNA, so that all future generations are more likely to inherit that particular trait.
An example is increasing the likelihood of offspring being a single sex (e.g. males), which would influence a decline in the population of the target species over time.
Importantly, each gene drive is species‑specific and cannot spread to other non‑target species. No gene drives have been released into the environment yet, with experts estimating the technology is at least a decade away from development in most cases.