facebook pixel
Bay Nature magazineJuly-September 2016

Re-Coding for Conservation

We can now alter the genomes of invasive species to slow their advance.
Should we?

by Alison Hawkes on June 27, 2016

Cover illustration by Jason Holley
Cartoons by Donna Almendrala

On July 27, 2017 this story was announced as a finalist for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine 2017 Communication Awards.


very year, as summer turns to fall, the mouse population on the South Farallon Islands explodes to plague-like densities, numbering 490 mice per acre, among the highest found on any island in the world. The scientists who live and work there describe the assault of the invasive house mouse as a kind of purgatory in the otherwise stunning, windswept smattering of rocky islets and sea stacks 30 miles outside the Golden Gate.

“At night they would be everywhere,” says Peter Pyle, a wildlife biologist who spent more than 20 fall seasons living at the research station on Southeast Farallon Island. “I had them crawling on top of me at night and in my hair. I tried to mouse-proof the house but we’d catch 50 mice in the night.”

Besides making scientific research on the Farallones a harrowing experience, the common house mouse, Mus musculus, has substantially disrupted the island ecosystem — spreading the seeds of invasive plants, eating the endemic Farallon camel cricket as well as a species of daisy called maritime goldfields that provides critical nesting material for birds, and indirectly causing the demise of the island’s breeding population of ashy storm- petrels, a California bird of special concern.

It’s a familiar story on islands all over the world where rodents — prolific feeders and breeders — are a leading cause of extinctions. Massive efforts have been undertaken to kill invasive rodents and usually involve broadcasting rodenticide; other options, like trapping mice or releasing biological controls in the form of snakes or cats, have been ineffective.

“At night they would be everywhere. I had them crawling on top of me at night and in my hair. I tried to mouse-proof the house but we’d catch 50 mice in the night.”

In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated a plan to exterminate the Farallones mice. The proposed plan, should it go forward, includes deploying helicopters to spray a rodenticide-laced bait throughout the steep, rugged terrain — on the nine problematic southern islands comprising 121 acres — to reach all the mouse burrows. For the treatment to succeed every mouse must be exterminated; a single pregnant female could lead to the quick regeneration of the population. The agency addressed the risks—non-target species might eat the bait, mouse predators might be poisoned, toxins might drift into the marine environment, helicopters could disturb birds—and came up with a plan to mitigate them. Although scientists have been largely supportive of the plan, a vocal segment of the public has come out against using poison on wilderness lands and causing the mice to suffer. The project now sits in limbo because of lapses in federal funding; in the meantime the mice keep eating and procreating.

But what if there was another way to do this dirty work?

At North Carolina State University, neurobiologist John Godwin was scrolling through his news feed and came across an item about the Farallones mouse project as the rodenticide plan was first announced. Godwin works with Mus musculus as part of his research into animal behavior, and he’s long been interested in the genetic divergence among mice that have stowed away to islands. It struck him there might be a genetic solution to the Farallones mouse problem, or if not there, on some other island suffering its own version of mouse Armageddon. “I thought, ‘This is the kind of place you would probably want to go — a remote island surrounded by white sharks with very strictly controlled access,’” says Godwin, a former field ecologist.

At NC State, Godwin had colleagues working at the cutting edge of genomics. Entomologist Fred Gould has been bioengineering a mosquito whose modified genes prevent it from transmitting malaria and dengue fever. And David Threadgill, a geneticist now at Texas A&M, studies cancer using house mice as models.

Fortuitously, Mus musculus is not only one of the most widely distributed mammals on earth but a longtime staple of laboratory research, and in 2002 it had become the second mammal, after humans, to have its genome decoded. As a result, scientists know a lot about what makes a house mouse tick, genetically and behaviorally. Godwin and his colleagues began discussing a novel research question: Could they genetically engineer a house mouse that would breed itself out of existence if set loose on an island?

The first step was to contact USFWS’s refuge manager for the Farallones. But in a conference call it became apparent that the agency wanted a faster and more straightforward method for solving the islands’ mouse problem, according to Threadgill. Still, the conference call introduced the NC State team to Karl Campbell, the program director for Island Conservation, a Santa Cruz-based nonprofit that specializes in ridding islands of invasive species. IC was involved in the Farallones mouse project in its early stages.

Campbell perked up at the prospect of developing a bioengineered mouse for island eradication work; he had already been thinking along those lines.“I knew it was potentially possible, but I didn’t have any contacts in the field,” Campbell recalls. “I was all over it pretty quickly.”



cientists have long dreamed of controlling species by tinkering with their genes, but it’s only in recent years that advances in molecular biology have supplied them with a surefire method. Arguably the biggest development has been the discovery of a technique for editing genes at precise locations called CRISPR-Cas9, pioneered in 2012 by UC Berkeley molecular biochemist Jennifer Doudna.

Besides raising hopes of curing cancer and congenital diseases and the specter of “designer babies,” CRISPR-Cas9 has scientists talking about everything from ending world hunger with drought-resistant crops to putting a stop to malaria by creating disease-proof mosquitoes, or even mitigating climate change with biofuel-producing yeast.

Whether or not the technology delivers in all these cases, CRISPR-Cas9 is a major scientific breakthrough that provides a cheap and easy means to alter almost any gene in any sexually reproducing species — which is both exciting and scary, considering that the ethics of deploying it have not been ironed out.

The field of conservation has been similarly intrigued by the possibilities. Imagine redesigning an endangered species to give it a better chance of survival. Or how about bringing back an extinct species like the woolly mammoth, or some approximation of it, by inserting genes recovered from frozen specimens into an elephant genome? Or take an invasive species like the house mouse on the Farallones — what if it could be humanely exterminated by engineering a male that can’t produce female offspring?

These aren’t theoretical scenarios anymore. In places around the world, scientists are pursuing such projects, though they are in the early stages. Along with creating enough safeguards so that the risks associated with unleashing a bioengineered species into the wild don’t surpass the benefits, scientists need to gain society’s approval, and that of the regulators as well. After all, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) already evoke the public’s ire when it comes to food crops and pests.

Ryan Phelan and her husband Stewart Brand, the cofounders of Revive & Restore, a project of the San Francisco-based Long Now Foundation, have been trying to catalyze the “genetic rescue” of species as an outgrowth of their work to bring back the woolly mammoth, passenger pigeon, and other extinct species. “It’s gathering momentum,” says Phelan, a self-described social entrepreneur. “What I hope is that conservationists figure out how to make this a new tool in their tool kit and that they use it cautiously, judiciously, appropriately, and with a lot of thought and a lot of input from ethicists, the public, and biologists.”



arl Campbell meets me at Island Conservation’s headquarters across the street from Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz. He’s flown to the U.S. for a few days from the Galapagos Islands, where he’s spent the better part of two decades ridding the chain of volcanic islands off the coast of Ecuador of invasive mammals, which have taken a toll on endemic species like the Galapagos tortoise.

Cats, rabbits, donkeys, goats, pigs, rats, mice — Campbell has eradicated them all. Rodents, you might say, are his specialty. He’s led projects to eliminate rats and mice from 12 Galapagos islands. (He’s also, by the way, worked in California on San Nicolas Island, one of the Channel Islands, to boot out feral cats.) All that time spent in the field has made him a practical man looking for practical solutions.

He explains his current undertaking in the Galapagos to remove black rats and house mice from Floreana Island with rodenticides. It’s the hardest invasive mammal removal project he’s ever undertaken because, unlike in all the others, people inhabit Floreana. Small children would have to temporarily leave the island and livestock would have to be corralled, lest they ingest the poison, and all this has to be done with unanimous community support.

“But Floreana is nothing. Floreana has 140 people,” he says. “There are thousands of other islands we would love to be working on that are way bigger and way more complex than Floreana. And so if we’re challenged at this level to even be working on the simple end of the spectrum with these islands, then you know it’s a real long shot to be considering other places.”

In 2011, faced with the prospect of running out of islands where rodenticide is a feasible solution, he launched an effort at IC to look for alternatives that are socially acceptable, are easy to deploy, and hit the chosen species hard without collateral damage to other species.

“What really floated to the top of the list was these genomic tools. They fulfilled all those criteria we were looking at and possibly more,” he says. “And when we looked around and asked who’s working on this, there was no one.”

But the theoretical underpinnings were there. Techniques for creating gender distortion in a population, the so-called “daughterless” approach, had successfully skewed insect populations in laboratory tests and had even been found possible with lab mice. It was a big moment for IC to move into the domain of scientific innovation, and for Campbell the goal of the new genetic technology is complete eradication of a local population of invasives rather than a more limited form of control that would require revisiting the same spots over and over for the foreseeable future, much like the work of pulling up French broom from the hillsides of Mount Tamalpais.

Once Campbell connected with the NC State team, it was only a few months before they cohosted a workshop in Raleigh and laid out the issues. Top of the list was how a bioengineered mouse would spread its daughterless genes quickly through a wild population. The whole concept of autocidal genes seems to be so disadvantageous to a species as to fly in the face of evolutionary theory.



n evolution, many genes — the sections of DNA that are responsible for all of our traits — are passed along through generations and spread within populations because they presumably help a species in some way. While an individual has a 50/50 chance of inheriting a given version of a gene from either parent, those that increase an individual’s chance of survival and ability to reproduce are more likely to get passed along to the next generation. But scientists have also identified something called “selfish genetic elements,” nicknamed “selfish genes,” that advance their likelihood of inheritance regardless of how useful, or even harmful, they may be to the organism. These genes have evolved in a variety of ways and in countless organisms to beat the inheritance odds by as little as 50.001 percent to as much as 99 percent. They’re so ubiquitous as to be “a universal feature of life,” according to Austin Burt, the evolutionary geneticist who identified a means to exploit selfish genes in 2003.

Scientists could, Burt found, artificially bind a gene with a desired trait to a selfish gene and then insert the package into the sex cells of an organism. Once they’re attached to each other, the selfish gene would effectively shuttle the desired gene into a population by increasing its probability of being inherited. The technique is called a gene drive — and is proving potentially useful in this burgeoning field of conservation genetics.

While gene drives occur naturally all the time, they vary in every species and can be difficult to identify. CRISPR-Cas9, a naturally occurring selfish gene found in bacteria, can function as a gene drive in other species—be it in a mosquito, mouse, oak tree, or human. Once placed in a cell’s nucleus, CRISPR-Cas9 will locate and snip out any specified section of the cell’s DNA, and the cell will repair the damage by copying CRISPR-Cas9, along with the desired gene, into the chromosome.

This is where the CRISPR-Cas9 system comes in handy. While gene drives occur naturally all the time, they vary in every species and can be difficult to identify. CRISPR-Cas9, a naturally occurring selfish gene found in bacteria, can function as a gene drive in other species—be it in a mosquito, mouse, oak tree, or human. Once placed in a cell’s nucleus, CRISPR-Cas9 will locate and snip out any specified section of the cell’s DNA, and the cell will repair the damage by copying CRISPR-Cas9, along with the desired gene, into the chromosome. A similar process will occur on the other chromosome, assuring two copies of the gene with the desired trait will be passed on to all offspring.

In the case of Mus musculus, there are classical genetic studies from the 1970s and ’80s of wild mice caught in Europe that possess a natural gene drive. “That’s where we started to explore,” David Threadgill says. “Could we use natural components present in mice for the conservation work?”

It was a tactical move to exploit a natural gene drive system for the project rather than CRISPR-Cas9, which would mean adding bacteria genes to the mouse genome to create a transgenic organism. Threadgill figures a natural gene drive is an easier concept to get past regulators and the public when the time comes for field tests with bioengineered mice. “This is already present in wild populations of mice, whereas CRISPR is artificial.” The natural gene drive system is probably a little less potent too, not a bad thing when it is introduced into the wild for the first time, he added.

It took a while, but Threadgill eventually tracked down a few specimens of these variant mice with the natural gene drive in freezers at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, France. “We basically recovered mice that had been frozen embryos and [they] now have a breeding population.” Threadgill’s lab is taking those house mice and pairing the natural gene drive system with a gene known as SRY that determines gender in mammals including house mice. By moving SRY off the male sex chromosome to the spot on the genome that contains the natural gene drive, Threadgill can make sure all offspring develop male reproductive organs, regardless of whether they have sex chromosomes that would normally result in the development of a female. “If SRY is connected to a gene drive system, then the vast majority of mice will inherit SRY and thus be male.”

Although such a daughterless gene drive system has never been built before in a mouse, progress has gone well over the last few years. As of April, Threadgill’s lab at Texas A&M was ready to pair the SRY gene with the natural gene drive system. “This is the last step of the process,” he says. He expects to produce the first fully assembled, bioengineered mouse by the end of this summer.



re we ready for a world where whatever ails wild populations of species (or us) can be “fixed” with a tweak of the genes?

Though humans have long made an indelible mark on the genomes of wild species, breeding wolves into dogs and teosinte grass into corn, the precision and rapidity of today’s bioengineering methods raise innumerable possibilities and ethical questions. You could rightfully be ecstatic or terrified, or a bit of both, about the future.

What if bioengineered genes drift into another species, or out of a lab and into an unintended population? What happens if a bioengineered organism finds its way back to its native habitat — could that bring about the global eradication of the house mouse, or the mosquito? Or what if a rogue scientist, or a bioterrorist, decides to set loose a bioengineered organism, to hell with the consequences?

Even as scientists work on safeguards — like reverse gene drives that can overwrite genetic changes if something goes wrong, or immunization gene drives to inoculate non-target species from an altered gene — it’s clear that regulators and the public need to catch up with the science. A National Academy of Sciences review of gene drives, released in June, cautiously endorsed the technology but advised that more laboratory research and contained field trials be done before releasing a gene drive into the wild.

But beyond the white papers and scientific reports, the questions that biotechnology like CRISPR-Cas9 and gene drive systems raise in conservation hit at our philosophical relationship with the natural world. Given that we’ve already made a grand mess of every place on earth, do we dare go to the deepest level of the genome, to the code of life? And what does it mean for a creature to be “wild” when it’s been bioengineered to do our bidding?

The Long Now Foundation’s offices at Fort Mason include a bar-cafe called The Interval, which has a steampunk aesthetic, all wood and metal, with displayed prototypes of the nonprofit’s 10,000-year clock and a floor-to-ceiling library to jump-start civilization should it ever wink out, like the genetic code of an extinct species. Two taxidermied passenger pigeons on loan from a museum are positioned, lifelike, behind a glass case. Ryan Phelan meets me there and shows off the space.

She says she doesn’t see these new genetic tools as all that different from other longtime trends in conservation. “The truth is we manage wilderness a lot already,” she says, noting selective breeding programs, artificial insemination, relocating individuals, and other methods routinely used to bring back a struggling species.

“It’s the opposite of what synthetic biology wants to do, which is make new amazing things. In conservation it’s, ‘No, we don’t want to do great big amazing things. We want to do tiny, just-enough things and back the hell off.’ … All you’re trying to do in conservation is maintain an existing truth.”

Stewart Brand, the founder of Whole Earth Catalog, drops by our table and adds his two cents to the discussion of bioengineering the wild. “It’s the opposite of what synthetic biology wants to do, which is make new amazing things. In conservation it’s, ‘No, we don’t want to do great big amazing things. We want to do tiny, just-enough things and back the hell off.’ … All you’re trying to do in conservation is maintain an existing truth.”

Tinkering with a gene or two so that nature can rebalance itself may sound like minimal intervention to Brand and Phelan, but it makes others uncomfortable.

“My gut-level response is I don’t want people messing with nature any more than they have to,” says Doug Johnson, the executive director of the California Invasive Plant Council. Many restoration managers like Johnson — the people on the front lines of reclaiming habitat and battling invasive species — are taking a wait-and-see approach to bioengineering the natural world. Johnson says his group surveyed land managers in California and found that 90 percent of them use herbicides at least some of the time to control invasive plants. They want new tools at their disposal, but Johnson says a tool needs to be proven safe before it’s used.

In some cases, maybe even in the majority, advanced genomic tools might be too risky. Take, for example, the Invasive Spartina Project, an effort to remove nonnative cordgrass from the San Francisco Bay using herbicides. Brian Ort, the geneticist working on the project, says a gene drive would be wholly inappropriate there given the close genetic relationship between the invasive Spartina alterniflora and the native variety experts are trying to restore. “We’re looking at two plants that easily form a hybrid. Anything you put into an alterniflora plant could easily get into the native population, and obviously we don’t want that.”

Yet then there’s the case of the American chestnut tree, a native to the Eastern Seaboard that’s been decimated by a fungal pathogen. By inserting a wheat gene into the tree’s genome, scientists at SUNY are creating blight-resistant trees that could be the first restored forest composed of genetically modified trees. Could a similar effort make California tan oaks resistant to Sudden Oak Death?

“I think it’s conceptually possible,” says UC Berkeley forest pathologist Matteo Garbelotto, who is trying to breed a SOD-resistant tan oak the old-fashioned way using genes found within the tan oak’s genetic repertoire. “I think the dividing line for me comes at using native genes versus nonnative. If the process was solely based on genetic resources that are already available to the tan oak, I don’t have a big problem using that because I live day after day on the other side of the coin where all these trees are going to die. But if genes came from a different organism or tree species, I would start questioning the process. I’m not comfortable with that extreme level of genetic modification.”

So far, Karl Campbell says he doesn’t see many downsides to a bioengineered mouse, which in this case would remain genetically 100 percent mouse, though built in a lab. Worse, he says, would be inaction. “You can call it playing God, but the other part of it is, Okay, cool, sit back and wait 30 years before you decide to get engaged. Meanwhile, you’re thousands of species short of where you were and, by the way, by the time you get to this it’s going to be tens of thousands of species.”

Though he feels confident, he knows the stakes are high to get it right. “Basically if you screw this up the first time, you will set this [type of effort] back three decades or more.” So the team is treading carefully, “go slow to go fast” is how he puts it. He’s initiating an independent panel that will look at potential pitfalls of releasing the mouse on a small island and then test out concerns. As far as picking an island for the first field tests, he says, the place will need a mature regulatory body that can give a gold standard review. And it will probably not be on the Farallones. “Thumb in the wind for social license? It’s likely not there.”

IC aims to start field tests in 2020. By then IC has to raise $6 million for the project, and Campbell knows he has to sell his story about islands. Ultimately, it’s an uplifting one. “I don’t often get back to the islands that we’ve removed invasive species on, but the ones I’ve gotten to are absolutely spectacular,” he says. Santiago Island, once free of goats and pigs, saw the immediate rebound of the nearly extinct Galapagos rail. “They were literally everywhere — ‘cheep, cheep, cheep’ — and just calling and going nuts. You read Darwin’s accounts of the island and you’re like, ‘Okay, I can see it now.’” Rábida Island was cleared of rats in 2011, and two years later two species of land snail appeared that were last seen when the California Academy of Sciences collected them in 1905. “I find it super motivating, this work,” Campbell adds. “My wife asks, ‘When are you going to stop doing this?’ Well, when I’m dead.”


ack in Raleigh, John Godwin is getting to know the Farallones mouse really well. He sent a graduate student on a supply boat out to the islands to trap 14 live mice to start a colony in his lab. “So, what we have is Farallones mice breeding here in Raleigh,” he says. “We have them in a mouse barn.”

He explains that because of the variation in mouse genomes (one supersize version of Mus musculus living on an island in the South Atlantic eats albatross chicks) he needs to run competition trials between the Farallones mouse and the European strain that’s slated to become the bioengineered mouse to assess its ability to successfully breed. “I jokingly say these male mice will have to have game. If they can’t compete with the local (Farallones) males in this population or if the females won’t breed with them successfully, this is not going to work.”

One way around that, Godwin says, would be to create a hybrid mouse with a high portion of the Farallones mouse genome and use it to carry the natural gene drive. That version of the mouse, “wild” enough to breed well, would be crossed with the bioengineered mouse (when it’s ready) and new fitness trials would commence — with the whole project moving over to a high-security laboratory, probably a USDA facility in Colorado. “We want to be careful that they don’t escape and breed with mice living in the walls of the building or something. We’re never far from the house mouse in Western civilization.”

Godwin explains more lab trials with mice from a selected field trial location will eventually occur, but for now the Farallones mice are proxies for island mice worldwide: If all goes well with mice, who knows what’s next.

Not since his graduate school days at the University of Hawaii, where he studied the population ecology of coral reef fish, has Godwin been involved in a conservation project. “I feel like I’m back to dirty fingernails biology,” he says. “The motivation here is that we’re facing a severe biodiversity threat, and maybe there’s another way to approach this.”

Alison Hawkes is Bay Nature’s contributing editor. She’s recently written about black-tailed jackrabbits, Measure AA, and tule elk in Point Reyes National Seashore for the magazine.


An earlier version of this story stated the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated a plan to exterminate the Farallones mice. The current version of the story clarifies that the plan is a proposal and still under review.

See more articles in: Stewardship

Most recent in Stewardship

See all stories in Stewardship


Claire Cummings on June 28th, 2016 at 7:14 pm

Has the conservation movement lost its mind? Gene drive is unsafe, unproven and unethical. It is the most insane idea I have heard of in my 20 years reporting on genetic engineering. And it is presented here with no critical analysis, scientific, ethical, or environmental. I have spent my life in conservation and want to do all I can for to stop extinction but using extinction to stop extinction? Gene Drive is a technology that says one species (us) gets to decide which other species live or die. This is not populations that will be eradicated, it is aimed at an entire species. Who likes pests like rats or mosquitoes? But think. What’s next? Could this be a cynical ploy to use conservation to test this dangerous technology? Because once accepted it can then be used for many far less “acceptable purposes – such as a bioweapon. Please, Bay Nature, print a reasonable counter argument to this insanity along with this article so that this distorted promotional piece can be assessed thoughtfully by the conservation community.

Maggie Sergio on June 29th, 2016 at 8:34 am

It is unfortunate that Alison Hawkes doesn’t reveal the truth as to why the City of San Francisco, American Bird Conservancy, the Ocean Foundation, Pelagic Shark Research Foundation, National Sierra Club, Animal Legal Defense Fund and a wealth of other environmental groups opposed the Farallon Islands rat poison drop. Her misleading statement – “a vocal segment of the public has come out against using poison on wilderness lands and causing the mice to suffer” is disingenuous and a dangerous manipulation of the facts.

What does exist are a long list of reasons (including the long term contamination of the entire ecosystem) as to why this highly controversial project was so strongly opposed by the public, environmentalists and the City of San Francisco.

Right out of the gate, an undeniable conflict of interest exists because the firm that would carry out the eradication project (Island Conservation) was paid $481,883.00 to create the draft environmental impact statement. This conflict of interest was never revealed in the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS), and is a violation of NEPA. This is something the EPA calls out in their 18 page comment letter voicing their concerns if the poison drop were to move forward. Ms. Hawkes can find a copy of the EPA’s comment letter here. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1coSMP87D0jNvfpj6G2elgl9kzPjKygWrum-I1YQkd5M/edit?usp=sharing

Her statement that USFWS addressed the risks and came up with a plan to mitigate them is preposterous. USFWS did not.

I would recommend that Ms. Hawkes take the time to educate herself about the project, which would include reading the 741 page DEIS which fails to prove that the mice, which have been on the Farallones for hundreds of years are having any negative impact on the environment. We have heard loud and clear that the scientists who go to the island are being inconvenienced, but when USFWS denies listing the ashy storm petrel as endangered, stating that “the species is currently undergoing natural population fluctuations and that the species is not in a long-term decline.” (USFWS endangered species division) one cannot overlook the motives behind this project.

Before looking at highly controversial and questionable measures such as dumping rat poison out of helicopters or genetically engineered mice, the first question that needs to be answered, by an unbiased party without any financial interests is, “Are the mice even causing a problem?”

William Benfield on June 29th, 2016 at 2:29 pm

What we see here in Alison Hawkes article is an example of the creeping New Zealand disease. The corruption of science, to achieve at great cost, the return of nature to the mythical pure state that it was before the coming of the white man. In that country it started in the 1920’s, and has been steadily growing until it has now reached the stage where New Zealand, and its Department of Conservation’s Island Eradication Advisory Group (IEAG) have become world leaders in species eradication. The Departments motto “Conservation for Prosperity” says it all. They have been involved in the Rat Island fiasco in the Aleutians (USA), Macquarie Island (Australia) and they have had a site manager at Lord Howe (Australia) for the impending poisoning there. One of their staff was a consultant in a project in the Seychelles where they actually managed to eradicate the rare snail they were supposedly poisoning the island to save!
Any scientist who questions what is going on will be dealt with ruthlessly. Californian Thane Riney, a former student of Aldo Starker Leopold, was almost run out of New Zealand in 1958 for questioning departmental conservation policy.
IEAG is the operational model US based Island Conservation (IC) is based on. A so called “not for profit” that generates considerable wealth for its stake holders. Former members of IEAG are now with IC.
This mouse genome project has the rhetoric and all the other hall marks of New Zealand’s conservation science: A crisis brought on by a population “explosion of plague like densities”. It cannot be addressed by usual poisoning due to the activities of “a vocal segment of the public” has stymied the programme. Hence, the genome programme. Just another round the for conservation’s shoddy science to reach the pot of gold.

Tony Orman on June 29th, 2016 at 3:05 pm

The Alison Hawkes article reminds me (as a Kiwi i.e. New Zealander) of the mad and dangerously flawed science that is rampant in New Zealand. And just because it’s labelled science, don’t unquestioningly believe in it. Scientists here have to operate under a commissioned, paid science regime. The science becomes warped and inaccurate.
Too often pseudo science (e.g. New Zealand’s destructive 1080 programme) intrudes and disrupts the natural ecosystem with disastrous consequences.
In NZ, objectives are often founded on unrealistic goals, i.e. turning NZ ‘s ecological clock back to 500AD. That’s impossible while humans and mad science remain.
-Tony Orman, New Zealand

Mary McAllister on June 29th, 2016 at 4:58 pm

When acknowledging that a project is controversial, it is usually wise to try to understand why. The author would have benefited from a simple Google search of island eradications. Here’s a brief sample of what she would have turned up:
(1) There is scanty evidence that these eradications “restore” ecosystems. Here is just one example that does not find such evidence:
This study compared the vegetation structure and ecosystems of three island systems off the coast of New Zealand: islands that never had rats, islands with rats, and islands on which rats had been “controlled.” They concluded that, “The extent to which structure and function of islands where rats have been eradicated will converge on uninvaded islands remains unclear…Since most impacts of rats were mediated through seabird density, the removal of rats without seabird recolonization is unlikely to result in a reversal of these processes. Even if seabirds return, a novel plant community may emerge.” (Christa Mulder et.al., “Direct and indirect effects of rats: does rat eradication restore ecosystem functioning of New Zealand seabird islands?” Biological Invasions, August 2009, 1671-1688)
(2) Unless 100% of the rats are eradicated, the population quickly returns to previous levels. Here is an example of such a failure:
80 tons of rodenticide pellets were aerial bombed on Henderson Atoll in the South Pacific at a cost of $2 million. A few years later the population of rats had returned to pre-poisoning levels of 100,000 rats. Plans are now being made to do it again. The only change in the effort will be to make the pellets more attractive, which probably means even more birds and animals will be killed by the pellets than were the first time. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/04/160419-rats-exploded-poison-henderson-island/
(3) The rodenticides that are used by these projects kill many non-target animals and they pollute the entire ecosystem. There are rarely any follow-up studies of collateral damage of these projects, but here is an example of one that did:
William Pitt, et. al., “Non-target species mortality and the measurement of brodifacoum rodenticide residues after a rat (Rattus rattus) eradication on Palmyra Atoll, tropical Pacific,” Biological Conservation, May 2015, 36-46
In 2011 Palmyra Atoll off the coast of Hawaii was aerial bombed with rodenticide (brodifacoum) twice and applied by hand once to eradicate rats. This study of non-target species mortality and rodenticide residues reports: “We documented brodifacoum residues in soil, water, and biota, and documented mortality of non-target organisms. Some bait (14–19% of the target application rate) entered the marine environment to distances 7 m from the shore. After the application commenced, carcasses of 84 animals representing 15 species of birds, fish, reptiles and invertebrates were collected opportunistically as potential non-target mortalities. In addition, fish, reptiles, and invertebrates were systematically collected for residue analysis. Brodifacoum residues were detected in most (84.3%) of the animal samples analyzed. Although detection of residues in samples was anticipated, the extent and concentrations in many parts of the food web were greater than expected.” (William Pitt, et. al., “Non-target species mortality and the measurement of brodifacoum rodenticide residues after a rat (Rattus rattus) eradication on Palmyra Atoll, tropical Pacific,” Biological Conservation, May 2015, 36-46)
(4) When eradicating one animal, we often find that we did not understand the role that animal played in the ecosystem and relationships that were unknown to us are revealed by the missing member of the ecosystem.
Eradicating cats on Macquerie Island off the coast of Australia had cascading effect throughout the ecosystem, described by the New York Times as follows: “…a team of scientists…reports that the cat removal unexpectedly wreaked havoc on the island ecosystem. With the cats gone, the island’s rabbits (also non-native) began to breed out of control, ravaging native plants and sending ripple effects throughout the ecosystem.” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/17/science/17isla.html?_r=0

The fourth reason (above), illustrates one of many problems with the plan to eradicate a species by altering it genetically to drive it to extinction. Most animals are both prey and predator. Rats and mice are no exception. Eliminating them may be convenient for the researchers who are apparently annoyed by them, especially since they do not eat them. But those mice are food for other animals. When we eliminate them, other animals will lose a very important source of food, judging by the description of how many mice they are.

I hope that Bay Nature will consider a follow-up article on this important topic. If they do, I hope it will be more balanced and will accurately describe the many serious concerns regarding these poisonous, deadly projects.

Peter Pyle on June 29th, 2016 at 5:53 pm

Very interesting and informative piece and I’m glad that all sides of the scientific and philosophical issues were touched upon.

I’ve expressed a balanced approach to the trade-offs regarding freeing the Farallon Islands of these unfortunate mice:

Basically, anyone who cares about animal welfare will want to help culminate the apocalyptic suffering that these mice endure annually. I don’t know if genetic-drive technology will be the answer but it certainly is worth exploring in a scientifically measured manner. If successful, it could represent a good alternative to rodenticide application, for those open to exploring solutions.

John Pritchard on June 29th, 2016 at 6:41 pm

This is incredibly exciting technology, a ray of hope for reversing the tragedy of the invasive species crisis. I think that this is going to be a real silver bullet for restoring ecosystems, similar to the discovery of penicillin in fighting bacterial infection. Unfortunately as we can see from the two comments above, there are people who are going to try to block this technique from ever being used, even as invasives continue to spread like wildfire, vulnerable species are driven toward extinction,and millions of people die from mosquito borne diseases. We need to have a rational analysis of the benefits and risks of this. Thanks to Bay Nature for opening the discussion.

Jonathan Latham on June 29th, 2016 at 8:04 pm

Readers should understand some of the problems of “Geneediting” before they think that gene drives are a good idea. there are some fairly fundamental misconceptions at work in this discussion. See God’s Red Pencil? CRISPR and The Three Myths of Precise Genome Editing: https://www.independentsciencenews.org/science-media/gods-red-pencil-crispr-and-the-three-myths-of-precise-genome-editing/

Jim Thomas on July 1st, 2016 at 9:12 am

It is extremely disappointing to see Bay Nature carry an article on such a controversial and risky plan with such lack of balance or even basic journalistic diligence. Contrary to the impression presented here CRISPR CAS9 gene drives are highly immature – it being barely 15 months since the first proof of principle of the ‘mutagenic chain reaction’s shown and they already have generated enormous controversy including a 200 page National Academy of Sciences Study that warned against open release and growing discussions at the Convention on Biological Diversity where there have been strong calls for a moratorium on this risky new technology.

Engineered Gene Drives are not just another tool in the toolkit – they are a high leverage world-changing technology that represent a significant break with mendelian evolution since they will theoretically drive a trait not just through a single population but by extension (over time) through an entire species – MIT’s Technology review has called them the ‘extinction invention’ (https://www.technologyreview.com/s/601213/the-extinction-invention/) and one of the scientists most closely associated, Dr Kevin Esvelt of MIT has repeatedly warned that this “an experiment where if you screw up, it affects the whole world”.

None of that widespread alarm and concern is reflected in this piece which instead chooses to valorise the hubristic overconfidence of a few invested individuals gambling on behalf of all. Last week at an international meeting on Synthetic Biology and societal ethics, the IC project was raised and discussed and MIT’s Ken Oye – a social scientist who works closely with Gene Drive developers – pointed out that nobody believes that releasing gene drives on islands amounts to containment and that nobody he knows who works on gene drives would back the idea of releasing this risky technology at the reckless speed that IC/Long Now/Revive and Restore are advocating. At the same meeting Randy Rettberg – one of the principals of the high profile global Synthetic Biology jamboree IGEM undertook that his organization would never allow for gene drive projects to be entered into the competition. And leading Synthetic Biologists have confided in me that they are alarmed to see some in the conservation world agitating for deployment as is reported here… i.e. not even the synthetic biologists are sanguine with this project. The truth is there is a pre-existing public relations campaign in which Long Now/Revive and Restore have been key to try to get synthetic biology re-badged as a technofix for conservation to move public opinion on genetic engineering away from concerns about the disruptive agricultural, military and societal impacts of this platform towards something that might have a fuzzy feelgood feeling. In September they will take this PR show on the road to Hawaii for the World Conservation Congress and attempt to capture IUCN endorsement of the gene drive fix. I am sorry that Bay Nature, unwittingly or otherwise, has allowed itself to be used in this PR plan. For a less triumphalist take on Gene Drives i’d point readers to this recent article: https://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2016/jun/09/the-national-academies-gene-drive-study-has-ignored-important-and-obvious-issues

Alison Hawkes on July 4th, 2016 at 11:12 am

Thank you for all the thoughtful comments on this piece. I wanted to clarify a couple things about our motivation at Bay Nature to produce a piece about gene drive technology and advanced genomic tools for use in conservation.

We see that tremendous and rapid changes are happening in genetic technology, especially with the advent of CRISPR-Cas9, and that these new tools are raising lots of possibilities and ethical questions in many fields, including medicine, public health, agriculture and, yes, conservation.

The objective of this piece is to raise awareness among the public and the conservation community about the rapid arrival of this technology so we are prepared to have a conversation about it. The story does not endorse genetic engineering, but tries to lay out how we’ve come to this point and the rudimentary science behind it.

In the course of doing this story, I learned that there’s a very strong local Bay Area angle that should make us more personally invested in the issue. That, of course, is the Farallones, which, interestingly enough, is the inspiration for what may be one of the first gene drive projects to be used in conservation.

Please do continue to offer your thoughts on the piece and on gene drive technology more generally. I firmly believe we need to have this debate about the pros and cons and about the level of risk we’re willing to accept in potentially deploying these new tools. Which lines are we willing to cross and why? I do expect that there will be internal disagreements within the conservation community but hope that the outcome of such debate is a more robust set of ethics and standards in using genetic technology in conservation work.

William Benfield on July 4th, 2016 at 2:08 pm

It is interesting to see the Tasmanian Police in Australia have cottoned on the what they see as an element of fraud in a programme set up with New Zealand input and consultants. i.e. the creeping New Zealand killing conservation. Let us wait and see if prosecutions follow. http://www.examiner.com.au/story/4003864/further-foxes-inquiry-likely/

Mary McAllister on July 4th, 2016 at 3:32 pm

The mistake Ms. Hawkes makes in her defense of her article is that she starts from the premise that it is necessary to eradicate mice on the Farallons. She seems to assume that everyone agrees that it IS necessary and that it is only a question of debating the method that will be used to do so.

In fact, there is not consensus about the project itself, regardless of what method is used. The article does not acknowledge the unintended consequences of similar projects all over the world. There are many places where these projects have been done with no apparent benefit. In the link that Bill Benfield provides, there are also many accusations of fraudulent justifications for the projects. In the example he provides, the proponents of the eradication are accused of falsifying the data that was used to justify aerial bombing rodenticides to kill foxes.

If Bay Nature wishes to cover this issue, it needs to accurately report the considerable record of the consequences of similar projects.

Matthew Legge on July 5th, 2016 at 9:03 am

There are very important issues related to the rapid advances in synthetic biology techniques like CRISPR-CAS9 and I agree wholeheartedly that conversations need to be had.

I find it disheartening when articles like this one fail to adequately consider how the profit motive is driving the synthetic biology industry. The profit motive leads to the issues other commenters have identified, like conflicts of interest and PR campaigns to obfuscate issues and detract from meaningful debate.

Any article discussing applications of CRISPR-CAS9, in particular applications as controversial as gene drives, should in my view name how the profit motive drives proponents and should critically examine proponents’ claims in this light, acknowledging the many risks and unknowns.

Another major oversight of this article is a failure to discuss how synthetic biology may be further eroding our fundamental thinking about the integrity, importance, and inter-connectedness of living beings and of ecosystems. My belief is not that synthetic biology is “unnatural”, but that we need to be very careful to approach it from a position of humility, admitting how much we do not know.

It is disturbing to see discussion of these issues not starting from such a place. In the synthetic biology industry there is often an apparent assumption that life is cleaner and more straightforward than it is, and that “noise” can be rounded off and indirect impacts ignored (or dealt with later by still more synthetic biology!)

Raymond Havisham on July 9th, 2016 at 8:21 am

Why is no one asking why their are so many mice. In southern china, there are rodent explosions that occur during one part of the bamboo life cycle. If this many mice are being bred in response to the egg laying cycle, that could be a problem but if their is another reason then it might not be such a problem. We need more discussions of the why’s of the mouse issue.

Alison Hawkes on July 11th, 2016 at 10:01 am

Hi Raymond, My understanding is that the mice are responding to the abundance of food on the islands, particularly at the end of the summer. And probably there’s no enough predation to keep their numbers in check. The mice exhibit this yearly population swing, which dies down after the winter rains come and wash out their burrows and food sources collapse. But then come springtime, there’s enough remaining to restart the breeding cycle. That’s why experts think that the only way to completely eliminate the nonnative mice is to get rid of every last one of them.

Maggie Sergio on July 12th, 2016 at 4:21 am

Ms Hawkes,

Your comment to Raymond is exactly why you should read the DEIS. The mice are a food source for a number of species on the islands.

What the “scientists” claim is that the mice, which have been on the Farallones for hundreds of years are “artificially attracting” on average, 6 burrowing owls each year to the Farallones. The burrowing owls are listed as a species of special concern in California.

The people who want to carry out this project feel that the burrowing owls should not be on the Farallones. They claim the owls will cause extinction of the ashy storm petrel, however the data in the DEIS doesn’t support that claim. As mentioned in my previous comment, USFWS denied listing the ashy storm petrel as endangered, stating that the species is experiencing normal fluctuations in population. It needs to be noted that the ashy storm petrel is naturally a slow breeder.

The proposed solution by those with a financial interest is to carpet bomb the islands with brodifacoum in an attempt to kill every mouse. This way the burrowing owls won’t fly out to the Farallones. This is a dangerous assumption that will lead to the poisoning of thousands of wild animals, which USFWS has a legal responsibility to protect. In addition to the contamination of the surrounding marine environment.

You should also be aware that eradication projects have a high failure rate. For mice, it is 38%.

If you don’t have time to read the 700 + page DEIS, you should read my article, The Farallon Islands Mouse Eradication Project: The ‘Con’ in Conservation.

Alison Hawkes on July 12th, 2016 at 10:46 am

Indeed, I have read the DEIS. I would like to point out that all the scientists and policy experts I interviewed who are familiar with the situation believe that a density of 490 mice per acre is a problem for the ecology of the Farallones. And it’s not just ashy storm petrels. The DEIS states a number of other ecological ramifications the nonnative mice are causing (also stated in my story).

In any case, the story is only tangentially about the Farallones, and instead uses the Farallones mouse situation as one example of one kind of situation where gene drive technology could be applied. The story also mentions its application with plants. The point of the story is to explain gene drive technology and the many questions it raises.

Peter Pyle on July 15th, 2016 at 11:45 am

There are a number of rigorous scientific studies that have come out in the past year or are in press documenting the problems the mice are causing the Farallon ecosystem; for example:

An additional important thing is that European House Mouse (Mus musculus) is not native on the Farallones. The animals and plants that are native there have evolved over 10’s of 1000’s of years to form a balanced ecosystem, which this non-native mouse has greatly disrupted.

I must say some of the arguments above, against at least exploring solutions, sound like what I hear on Fox News from climate-denier and others. I certainly agree that profit motive must be eliminated from the equation and most of us NGO scientists (at least much more than corporations and climate deniers) respect this and do their best to be strictly objective in their research. But to “just say no” to everything is a very unhelpful approach to this serious ecological issue.

Victoria Schlesinger on July 20th, 2016 at 1:50 pm

Hi all – An interesting new article out today examining the current state of CRISPR technology and its weaknesses. By longtime science reporter Sharon Begley, she writes: “…Dr. J. Keith Joung of Massachusetts General Hospital showed at the American Society of Hematology’s workshop on genome-editing last week in Washington. While the 150 experts from industry, academia, the National Institutes of Health, and the Food and Drug Administration were upbeat about the possibility of using genome-editing to treat and even cure sickle cell disease, leukemia, HIV/AIDS, and other blood disorders, there was a skunk at the picnic: an emerging concern that some enthusiastic CRISPR-ers are ignoring growing evidence that CRISPR might inadvertently alter regions of the genome other than the intended ones.”

For the full story on STAT: https://www.statnews.com/2016/07/18/crispr-off-target-effects/

Mary McAllister on August 1st, 2016 at 5:58 am

The Million Trees blog has published an article about island eradications: https://milliontrees.me/2016/08/01/island-eradications-in-the-bay-area-rear-their-ugly-head-again/ The history of these projects is explained. The mistaken assumptions about the prehistoric conditions the projects are attempting to replicate are explained. The frequent failure of the projects to “restore” ecosystems or to successfully exterminate the target species is reported. The poisoning of the environment and the death of many non-target birds and animals are reported. These are the significant issues that are missing from the Bay Nature article.

Mr. Pyle’s attempt to paint opponents of these deadly projects into a right-wing corner by comparing them to “Fox News climate change deniers” requires a response. This accusation is often repeated by those who are selling these deadly projects to the public. It is an absurd accusation. Concern for poisoning the environment and killing of innocent animals are not planks in the right-wing agenda.

Indeed, nativism is the hallmark of right-wing politics. Nativism divides the natural world into “good” and “bad” plants and animals and the human domain into “good” and “bad” religions, nationalities and ethnicities. Those who object to the demonization of plants, animals, and humans because of some meaningless distinction cannot be accurately accused of being right-wing.

Leave a Comment





Bay Nature