‘Gene drives’ could wipe out whole populations of pests in one fell swoop

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Gene drives aim to deliberately spread bad genes when invasive species such as mice reproduce.
Colin Robert Varndell/shutterstock.com

Thomas Prowse, University of Adelaide; Joshua Ross, University of Adelaide; Paul Thomas, University of Adelaide, and Phill Cassey, University of Adelaide

What if there was a humane, targeted way to wipe out alien pest species such as mice, rats and rabbits, by turning their own genes on themselves so they can no longer reproduce and their population collapses?

Gene drives – a technique that involves deliberately spreading a faulty gene throughout a population – promises to do exactly that.

Conservationists are understandably excited about the possibility of using gene drives to clear islands of invasive species and allow native species to flourish.

Read more: Gene drives may cause a revolution, but safeguards and public engagement are needed.

Hype surrounding the technique continues to build, despite serious biosecurity, regulatory and ethical questions surrounding this emerging technology.

Our study, published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggests that under certain circumstances, genome editing could work.

The penguins on Antipodes Island currently live alongside a 200,000-strong invasive mouse population.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Good and bad genes

The simplest way to construct a gene drive aimed at suppressing a pest population is to identify a gene that is essential for the pest species’ reproduction or embryonic development. A new DNA sequence – the gene-drive “cassette” – is then inserted into that gene to disrupt its function, creating a faulty version (or “allele”) of that gene.

Typically, faulty alleles would not spread through populations, because the evolutionary fitness of individuals carrying them is reduced, meaning they will be less likely than non-faulty alleles to be passed on to the next generation. But the newly developed CRISPR gene-editing technology can cheat natural selection by creating gene-drive sequences that are much more likely to be passed on to the next generation.

Read more: Now we can edit life itself, we need to ask how we should use such technology.

Here’s how the trick works. The gene-drive cassette contains the genetic information to make two new products: an enzyme that cuts DNA, and a molecule called a guide RNA. These products act together as a tiny pair of molecular scissors that cuts the second (normal) copy of the target gene.

To fix the cut, the cell uses the gene drive sequence as a repair template. This results in a copy of the gene drive (and therefore the faulty gene) on both chromosomes.

This process is called “homing” and, when switched on in the egg- or sperm-producing cells of an animal, it should guarantee that almost all of their offspring inherit the gene-drive sequence.

As the gene-drive sequence spreads, mating between carriers becomes more likely, producing offspring that possess two faulty alleles and are therefore sterile or fail to develop past the embryonic stage.

Will it work?

Initial attempts to develop suppression drives will likely focus on invasive species with rapid life cycles that allow gene drives to spread rapidly. House mice are an obvious candidate because they have lots of offspring, they have been studied in great detail by biologists, and have colonised vast areas of the world, including islands.

In our study we developed a mathematical model to predict whether gene drives can realistically be used to eradicate invasive mice from islands.

Our results show that this strategy can work. We predict that a single introduction of just 100 mice carrying a gene drive could eradicate a population of 50,000 mice within four to five years.

But it will only work if the process of genetic homing – which acts to overcome natural selection – functions as planned.

Evolution fights back

Just as European rabbits in Australia have developed resistance to the viruses introduced to control them, evolution could thwart attempts to use gene drives for biocontrol.

Experiments with non-vertebrate species show that homing can fail in some circumstances. For example, the DNA break can be repaired by an alternative mechanism that stitches the broken DNA sequence back together without copying the gene-drive template. This also destroys the DNA sequence targeted by the guide RNA, producing a “resistance allele” that can never receive the gene drive.

A recent study in mosquitos estimated that resistance alleles were formed in at least 2% of homing attempts. Our simulation experiments for mice confirm this presents a serious problem.

After accounting for low failure rates during homing, the creation and spread of resistance alleles allowed the modelled populations to rebound after an initial decline in abundance. Imperfect homing therefore threatens the ability of gene drives to eradicate or even suppress pest populations.

One potential solution to this problem is to encode multiple guide RNAs within the gene-drive cassette, each targeting a different DNA sequence. This should reduce homing failure rates by allowing “multiple shots on goal”, and avoiding the creation of resistance alleles in more cases.

To wipe out a population of 200,000 mice living on an island, we calculate that the gene-drive sequences would need to contain at least three different guide RNA sequences, to avoid the mice ultimately getting the better of our attempts to eradicate them.

From hype to reality

Are gene drives a hyperdrive to pest control, or just hype? Part of the answer will come from experiments with gene drives on laboratory mice (with appropriate containment). That will help to provide crucial data to inform the debate about their possible deployment.

The ConversationWe also need more sophisticated computer modelling to predict the impacts on non-target populations if introduced gene drives were to spread beyond the populations targeted for management. Using simulation, it will be possible to test the performance and safety of different gene-drive strategies, including strategies that involve multiple drives operating on multiple genes.

Thomas Prowse, Postdoctoral research fellow, School of Mathematical Sciences, University of Adelaide; Joshua Ross, Associate Professor in Applied Mathematics, University of Adelaide; Paul Thomas, , University of Adelaide, and Phill Cassey, Assoc Prof in Invasion Biogeography and Biosecurity, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Southeast Europe swelters through another heatwave with a human fingerprint

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Searching for respite from the heat in one of Rome’s fountains.
Max Roxxi/Reuters

Andrew King, University of Melbourne

Parts of Europe are having a devastatingly hot summer. Already we’ve seen heat records topple in western Europe in June, and now a heatwave nicknamed “Lucifer” is bringing stifling conditions to areas of southern and eastern Europe.

Several countries are grappling with the effects of this extreme heat, which include wildfires and water restrictions.

Temperatures have soared past 40℃ in parts of Italy, Greece and the Balkans, with the extreme heat spreading north into the Czech Republic and southern Poland.


Some areas are having their hottest temperatures since 2007 when severe heat also brought dangerous conditions to the southeast of the continent.

The heat is associated with a high pressure system over southeast Europe, while the jet stream guides weather systems over Britain and northern Europe. In 2007 this type of split weather pattern across Europe persisted for weeks, bringing heavy rains and flooding to England with scorching temperatures for Greece and the Balkans.

Europe is a very well-studied region for heatwaves. There are two main reasons for this: first, it has abundant weather observations and this allows us to evaluate our climate models and quantify the effects of climate change with a high degree of confidence. Second, many leading climate science groups are located in Europe and are funded primarily to improve understanding of climate change influences over the region.

The first study to link a specific extreme weather event to climate change examined the record hot European summer of 2003. Since then, multiple studies have assessed the role of human influences in European extreme weather. Broadly speaking, we expect hotter summers and more frequent and intense heatwaves in this part of the world.

We also know that climate change increased deaths in the 2003 heatwaves and that climate change-related deaths are projected to rise in the future.

Climate change’s role in this heatwave

To understand the role of climate change in the latest European heatwave, I looked at changes in the hottest summer days over southeast Europe – a region that incorporates Italy, Greece and the Balkans.

I calculated the frequency of extremely hot summer days in a set of climate model simulations, under four different scenarios: a natural world without human influences, the world of today (with about 1℃ of global warming), a 1.5℃ global warming world, and a 2℃ warmer world. I chose the 1.5℃ and 2℃ benchmarks because they correspond to the targets described in the Paris Agreement.

As the heatwave is ongoing, we don’t yet know exactly how much hotter than average this event will turn out to be. To account for this uncertainty I used multiple thresholds based on historically very hot summer days. These thresholds correspond to an historical 1-in-10-year hottest day, a 1-in-20-year hottest day, and a new record for the region exceeding the observed 2007 value.

While we don’t know exactly where the 2017 event will end up, we do know that it will exceed the 1-in-10 year threshold and it may well breach the higher thresholds too.

A clear human fingerprint

Whatever threshold I used, I found that climate change has greatly increased the likelihood of extremely hot summer days. The chance of extreme hot summer days, like this event, has increased by at least fourfold because of human-caused climate change.

Climate change is increasing the frequency of hot summer days in southeast Europe. Likelihoods of the hottest summer days exceeding the historical 1-in-10 year threshold, one-in-20 year threshold and the current record are shown for four scenarios: a natural world, the current world, a 1.5℃ world, and a 2℃ world. Best estimate likelihoods are shown with 90% confidence intervals in parentheses.
Author provided

My analysis shows that under natural conditions the kind of extreme heat we’re seeing over southeast Europe would be rare. In contrast, in the current world and possible future worlds at the Paris Agreement thresholds for global warming, heatwaves like this would not be particularly unusual at all.

There is also a benefit to limiting global warming to 1.5℃ rather than 2℃ as this reduces the relative frequency of these extreme heat events.

As this event comes to an end we know that Europe can expect more heatwaves like this one. We can, however, prevent such extreme heat from becoming the new normal by keeping global warming at or below the levels agreed upon in Paris.

The ConversationYou can find out more about the methods used here.

Andrew King, Climate Extremes Research Fellow, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.