Ge­netic so­lu­tion finds au­di­ence


Af­ter 23 years, a re­tired pro­fes­sor who has a po­ten­tial new ge­netic pest con­trol for the fu­ture is be­ing lis­tened to.

Former Univer­sity of Otago pro­fes­sor John Knight’s ap­peals to Gov­ern­ment, in­clud­ing a suc­ces­sion of Prime Min­is­ters over ‘‘decades’’, fell on deaf ears – un­til Wednes­day. He de­liv­ered a pre­sen­ta­tion, at the re­quest of the Otago Re­gional Coun­cil, on a ’’novel ap­proach’’ to erad­i­cate pests in New Zealand.

‘‘This will sound ex­tra­or­di­nary but we have been try­ing for 23 years to get branches of Gov­ern­ment to un­der­stand the need for a novel ap­proach to con­trol pests in the coun­try. This is the first time I have been in­vited to speak to any branch of Gov­ern­ment, cen­tral or lo­cal.’’

Knight said the CRISPR-Cas9 gene drive sys­tem could be used to en­gi­neer males that pro­duce only male off­spring. These males will in turn mate with fe­males in the wild, and only pro­duce male off­spring.

‘‘I have ap­plied six time for Gov­ern­ment fund­ing to get this work go­ing.’’

He had not re­ceived a ‘‘shred of feed­back’’ for why the ap­pli­ca­tions had been de­nied - but he sus­pected a per­ceived ‘‘so­cial risk’’ was com­ing into play.

‘‘I don’t want to dwell on the whys and where­fores but an ob­ses­sion with the risks of ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion have clearly came into play.’’

Cur­rently, vast amounts of poi­son was dumped out of air­craft in the hope that it was go­ing to solve the prob­lem.

‘‘At­tempts to de­velop bet­ter meth­ods, bet­ter traps, bet­ter dis­eases...they all face a prob­lem - these meth­ods will never reach an end point.’’

Knight was seek­ing $1.5 mil­lion over three years to start the ‘‘ba­sic work’’ needed, and cited the ORC’s Pest Man­age­ment Strat­egy for 2009-2019, which sup­ports re­search in new pest con­trol tools, in­clud­ing bi­o­log­i­cal con­trol.

Coun­cil chair­man Stephen Wood­head said he was sup­port­ive of re­gional coun­cils across the coun­try ‘‘hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion’’ about the pro­posal.

‘‘It is an in­ter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tion to oc­cur and we will try and get it in front of our na­tional chairs and chief ex­ec­u­tives. There is a grad­ual move­ment in the com­mu­nity un­der­stand­ing we are go­ing to have to face up to some of these things.

‘‘The cur­rent tools are not sus­tain­able long term.’’

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