Professor with genetic pest control proposal bends ear of Otago Regional Council

Retired University of Otago professor John Knight has been seeking Government support for 23 years to develop a gene ...
Jo McKenzie-McLean

Retired University of Otago professor John Knight has been seeking Government support for 23 years to develop a gene drive to eliminate mammalian pests from New Zealand.

After 23 years, a retired professor who has a potential new genetic pest control for the future is being listened to.

Former University of Otago professor John Knight's appeals to Government, including a succession of Prime Ministers over "decades", fell on deaf ears – until Wednesday. He delivered a presentation, at the request of the Otago Regional Council, on a "novel approach" to eradicate pests in New Zealand.

"This will sound extraordinary but we have been trying for 23 years to get branches of Government to understand the need for a novel approach to control pests in the country. This is the first time I have been invited to speak to any branch of Government, central or local, so thank you, I appreciate it."

Knight, with his son Rob Knight - a professor based at the University of California San Diego - seek funding to support research into developing a gene drive to eliminate mammalian pests from New Zealand. The CRISPR-Cas9 gene drive system could be used to engineer males that produce only male offspring. These males will in turn mate with females in the wild, and only produce male offspring.

"He and I have applied six time for Government funding to get this work going."

READ MORE: Inaction on pest control proposal 'bordering on criminal neglect'

The pair had not received a "shred of feedback" for why the applications had been denied - but he suspected a perceived "social risk" was coming into play.

"I don't want to dwell on the whys and wherefores but an obsession with the risks of genetic modification have clearly came into play...When I couldn't get funding for science I re-trained in marketing and ended up becoming a professor in marketing. My research was public attitudes in other countries towards genetic modification and the likelihood or not that it would damage our country's image. We concluded there is not a shred of evidence this would have a negative effect. Genetic engineering should be used for important problems. There is a desperate need for state-of-the-art methods to be developed and it does appear gene drive provides the best hope of achieving this."

Currently, vast amounts of poison was dumped out of aircraft in the hope that it was going to solve the problem.

"Attempts to develop better methods, better traps, better diseases ..they all face a problem - these methods will never reach an end point."

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It was too earlier to have the ethical debate, he said.

"Personally, I think the time for debating, 'should we go down this track?', is after we prove it is possible. The research has got to be done first and we are getting preoccupied with whether or not such a technology should be introduced and it isn't actually feasible to do it yet. It may not be for 10 to 15 years. I can't see why people are so preoccupied with the public debate rather than putting some seed money into the concept."

Knight was seeking $1.5 million over three years to start the "basic work" needed, and cited the ORC's Pest Management Strategy for 2009-2019, which supports research in new pest control tools, including biological control.

"We have given up on any idea of some Government agency is going to pour in $10m so we are looking for a modest amount of funding...I don't know whether the support [from ORC] is inviting me to give a talk, or whether you are prepared to clip $1m off that building fund I see you have got and say, 'well, we actually should invest in this'."

Council chairman Stephen Woodhead said he was supportive of regional councils across the country "having a conversation" about the proposal.

"There is a gradual movement in the community understanding we are going to have to face up to some of these things. The current tools are not sustainable long term...As scary as some of it might seem initially there could be ways of ensuring it is safe. There has been a lot of technology sitting there at various stages and still not at a point where they are being delivered on the ground. It is an interesting conversation to occur and we will try and get it in front of our national chairs and chief executives."

Cr Bryan Scott said Knight's proposal "seems to be one of the few lights at the end of the tunnel".

Cr Trevor Kempton said the current Government thinking was "shrouded in insanity" if they thought the country would become predator-free using the same old methods.

 - Stuff

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