When scientists Marilyn Duxson and John Harris purchased a small section near Wanaka almost 20 years ago, they planned to build a ski holiday house to spend weekends away from Dunedin.
Professor Neil Gemmell, head of the University of Otago’s Department of Anatomy, says the ‘Trojan Female Technique’ (TFT) – in which females pass on genes that make male offspring infertile -- offers a means of New Zealand reaching the Government’s Predator Free 2050 goal.
In a recent paper published by eLife, Gemmell and co-authors report their success against Trojan female fruit flies in a lab. “This is a world-first proof-of-concept and we need to test the general applicability of the approach more widely.”
Gemmell says the technique uses naturally occurring mutations in mitochondrial DNA that affect male, but not female, fertility and fitness. Mitochondria are considered the ‘power generators’ of a cell and turn oxygen and nutrients into chemical energy which runs the cell’s metabolic activities.
“The essence of our idea is to use these mitochondrial mutations to produce continuous, self-sustaining biological control.
“What we discovered some years ago is that, as a by-product of the maternal inheritance of mitochondrial DNA, mutations that affect only males can occur quite commonly in populations, potentially contributing to fertility issues in some populations.
“Our idea turns this problem around. If these mutations can affect population viability, we wondered if they might be turned into a tool with potential to control and even eradicate pests.
“Our paper – with Dr Damian Dowling and Dr Jonci Wolff of Monash University -- shows that population reduction, albeit at this stage quite modest, can be achieved in laboratory-raised fruit flies.”
Gemmell says broadening this technique to introduce Trojan females into wasp and pasture weevil populations is under way, with funding from the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.
“There are several advantages of this approach, which does not require elaborate, and probably uncontrollable, delivery systems, such as parasitic vectors and intermediate hosts.
“It is species-specific, there is little danger of accidental release or cross-species transmission, and it is adaptable to any pest species because mitochondria are common to all higher organisms.
“While there are many tools to control pest populations, we think this might be an important part of a growing arsenal. Certainly around New Zealand there is a great deal of interest in this approach as a way to control rats, possums and stoats as part of the Predator Free 2050 goal.”
Co-author Dr Dan Tompkins, who is Landcare Research’s managing invasives portfolio leader, says it is a critical advantage that the approach does not require genetic modification.
“This technique is now being explored for application to pasture weevils, which cause millions of dollars of loss to the dairy and other livestock industries each year. This is particularly relevant at the moment, given data suggesting that the current biocontrol of these weevils could be failing.
“It could also be used for controlling vertebrate pests, but that line of research is several years behind insect work and is currently unfunded in NZ.”
Pests are estimated to cost NZ about $3.3 billion a year through lost productivity and cause profound damage to native fauna and flora. The implications globally are even larger, particularly when insect-borne diseases like malaria are considered.