Synthetic biology and gene technology could be a safer and more humane way to deal with invasive species. Feral cat populations, for example, could be controlled by preventing them from reproducing.
But there’s no point trying a new technology if it doesn’t have public support – so does synthetic biology pass the pub test?
According to a CSIRO report, it is possible. Their survey of nearly 4,000 Australians reveals that most support the idea of using gene drives on feral cats.
“This particular study builds on our public acceptability work over the past three to four years on synthetic biology solutions to significant national challenges,” says Dr. Aditi Mankad, co-author of the report and researcher in the Sustainability Program. CSIRO Land & Water pathways.
“You will never get full acceptance of anything. We just want to understand what people think in this space.
Mankad and his colleagues surveyed 3,823 Australians about their views on gene drives.
Gene drive technology ensures that a certain gene must be inherited – so instead of 50% of a creature’s offspring carrying the gene, 100% of them carry it. It could be used, for example, to make all offspring of feral cats males, slowly causing the population to decline as they run out of females to breed with. (For more on gene drives, read our explainer.)
The technology is far from being used in the field, although similar ideas – like releasing sterilized fruit flies – have been used to control invasive species before.
“We believe it’s never too early to start these conversations,” Mankad says.
The researchers asked for general perspectives from survey respondents on synthetic biology, before showing them one of four different gene drives animations. They then asked respondents about their support for gene drives to control feral cat populations.
Feral cats have been the main driver of the extinction of at least 27 native species. In Australia, they kill around 3.2 million mammals, 1.2 million birds, 1.9 million reptiles and 250,000 frogs every day.
“There were 86% of participants who were moderately to strongly in favor of genetic technology to control feral cats in their area, compared to 11% who indicated little or no support,” Mankad explains.
People who lived in areas with high levels of feral cat predation were more intensely supportive of the gene drive, while owners of domestic cats were less likely to be supportive.
Although these results are promising, it is still a theoretical technology. Mankad says people would probably react differently if there was a gene drive ready to deploy tomorrow.
“As the technology develops, it will be important to continue to gauge public opinion and understand the needs of communities experiencing these issues on the ground over time,” Mankad says.
The full report, which is not peer-reviewed, can be downloaded from the CSIRO website.