Synthetic biology and genetic technology could be a safer, more humane way of curbing invasive species. Feral cat populations, for instance, could be controlled by preventing them from breeding.
But there’s no point trying a new technology it if it doesn’t have public support – so does synthetic biology pass the pub test?
According to a report from the CSIRO, it just might. Their survey of nearly 4,000 Australians finds that most support the idea of using gene drives on feral cats.
“This particular study builds on our public acceptability work over the last three to four years on synthetic biology solutions to significant national challenges,” says Dr Aditi Mankad, co-author of the report and a researcher at CSIRO Land & Water’s Sustainability Pathways Program.
“You’ll never get full acceptance of anything. We just want to understand what people are thinking in this space.”
Mankad and colleagues surveyed 3,823 Australians on their perspectives on gene drives.
Gene drive technology ensures that a certain gene must get inherited – so instead of roughly 50% of a creature’s offspring carrying the gene, 100% of them carry it. It could be used, for instance, to make all feral cat offspring male, slowly leading to population decline as they run out of females to breed with. (For more on gene drives, read our explainer.)
The technology is a long way off from being used in the field, although similar ideas – like releasing sterilised fruit flies – have already been used to control invasive species.
“We think it’s never too early to start those conversations,” says Mankad.
The researchers asked for survey respondents’ general perspectives on synthetic biology, before showing them one of four different animations on gene drives. They then quizzed respondents on their support for gene drives to control feral cat populations.
Feral cats have been the main driver of at least 27 native species’ extinction. In Australia, they kill roughly 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 supportive of gene technology to control feral cats in their local area, as opposed to 11% who indicated little or no support,” says Mankad.
People who lived in areas with high levels of feral cat predation were more intensely in favour of gene drives, while domestic cat owners were less likely to be supportive.
While these results are promising, they’re still about a theoretical technology. Mankad says that people would likely respond differently if there was a gene drive ready to roll out tomorrow.
“As the technology develops, it will be important to continue to measure public sentiment and understand the needs of communities who experience those problems on the ground over time,” says Mankad.
The full report, which isn’t peer-reviewed, can be downloaded from CSIRO’s website.
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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