Genetic biocontrol of mouse plagues

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A Phenomics Australia case study

Phenomics Australia infrastructure used in biocontrol and environment protection.

While Phenomics Australia’s infrastructure has primarily been focused on health discovery and translation, our infrastructure and expertise may also be applied in support of biosecurity and environmental protection.

The challenge:

Rural communities and farmers continue to battle a mouse plague in Australia.

The solution:

Using ‘gene drive’ technology to control mouse plagues.

The future:

The biocontrol approach could be a better way to prevent future mice plagues.

The challenge: Rural communities and farmers continue to battle a mouse plague in Australia.

Following the worst drought in living memory, farms and communities in western New South Wales are now enduring another natural disaster — millions of mice.

Many farmers have been forced to burn hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of perishable supplies, now rendered toxic from mouse infestations.

With no end in sight, regional communities are desperate for support to control the vermin.

The solution: Using ‘gene drive’ technology to control mouse plagues.

The New South Wales government has announced a $50 million mouse control package which includes $1.8 million to develop genetic biocontrol of mice populations.

The project aims to fast-track the delivery of next-generation “gene drive” technology to control plagues of the future.

Researchers have welcomed the announcement, including Australia’s lead researcher Professor Paul Thomas from the University of Adelaide and supported by Phenomics Australia.

He said the technology is only relatively new, having been developed to some extent in insects for malaria control, but has not yet been applied to mammals. 

“So effectively it just uses the natural mating processes to spread a gene through a specific pest population to cause female mouse infertility,” he said.

“We have modelled it already and this approach should cause the population to crash over time.

“This funding will enable us to move much faster on these projects.”

Another control approach termed the “X-shredder”, will also be investigated. This strategy eliminates sperm carrying the X chromosome, producing more male than female offspring.

“The funding will enable us to safely test each of these strategies and come up with the one that we think is the most promising, that we can then take forward to the next level of testing,” Professor Thomas said.

Professor Thomas will team up with School of Biological Sciences invasive species experts Associate Professor Phill Cassey and Dr Thomas Prowse, as well as colleagues from CSIRO and the Centre for Invasive Species Solutions (CISS).

Prof Paul Thomas' (left) South Australian Genome Editing (SAGE) team.

The future: The biocontrol approach could be a better way to prevent future mice plagues.

It is not an immediate solution though and is still a long way from being used, but genetic biocontrol may be an effective and humane way of preventing future mice plagues. Prof Thomas is also working on genetic safety switches to limit gene drive activity to the target pest population.

NSW Minister for Agriculture Adam Marshall said the funding would help modernise pest control.

“Mice arrived in Australia with the first fleet, and from then until now the best control methods we have been able to come up with have been baiting and trapping,” he said.

“With this $50 million investment we are not only giving farmers more baiting options and providing rebates for people to control mice in and around their homes, but we are fast-tracking critical research to bring mouse control into the 21st Century.”

With the NSW government currently awaiting approval from the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) for the use of bromadiolone to combat the mouse plague, Professor Thomas added that any biocontrol in the future would also need to be regulated.

“We are of course discussing all of our experiments with the gene technology regulator in Australia and we are working alongside social scientists to get community feedback.”

Related resources:

After drought and pandemic, mouse plague pushes regional NSW residents to breaking point.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-05-24/nsw-mouse-plague-farmers-residents-face-bankruptcy/100153404

Development of zygotic and germline gene drives in mice.

https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.06.21.162594v1

Mouse plague control hopes raised with funding for genetic biocontrol research.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-06-03/funding-for-genetic-biocontrol-research-to-control-mice/100186918

Fears napalm-like mouse bait bromadiolone could have ‘huge’ impact on native species if approved.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/rural/2021-06-01/fears-napalm-like-mouse-bait-could-poison-native-fish-birds/100179620

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