Can Gene Drive Help Control Invasive Species Like Rats?February 22, 2023
Historically, the most significant number of extinctions happen on small islands. One of its leading causes is the introduction of invasive species due to human activity. Rats, for example, were unintentionally brought to islands when sea explorers tried to map the world hundreds of years ago. To date, these rats have become a threat to the local biodiversity. They are responsible for 40-60% of reptile extinctions and endangering many species of sea birds.
The problem is not just the threat of the invasive species itself but also the trade-offs in the inherent risk that comes with the methods to control them. These methods include poisoning and culling, which are harmful to rats and have unintended side effects for other species nearby. While poison may work to eliminate rats, it can also enter the food chain and possibly affect the human population in the area.
Scientists are looking at other means to control the invasive rat species populations. One of the tools they are particularly interested in is gene drive technology. "Here's a tool that potentially has no consequences for a non-target species and no implications in the ecosystem as compared to use of the rodenticides. It has the potential to solve problems at a high degree of scale and precision as it is species-focused. In other words, we can get all the benefits of removing introduced rodents from islands without any risks that come from the current tools," said Gregg Howald, Director of Advanced Conservation Initiatives.
Bridget Baumgartner, Program Manager at Revive & Restore, recognizes the benefits of gene drives' specificity and highlights that gene drives are also more humane compared to poisoning or culling - an organism that is not born or is born sterile has a higher life quality than one that is hunted or culled, says Baumgartner.
According to the experts, once assessment results confirm gene drive tools can be deployed safely and effectively, they can become a valuable tool to address invasive alien species, ultimately contributing to reverse biodiversity loss trends.
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