Should we EDIT NATURE?
BBC Wildlife|September 2021
Genetic engineering could revolutionise environmental conservation, from reducing invasive species to making plants and animals resilient to climate change. But should we use this newfound power – and if so, how should it be controlled?
Jheni Osman

The grey squirrel is a familiar creature in our parks and gardens. This fluffy-tailed mammal has been making mischief in the UK for a while now, overwhelming our native reds since being introduced here from North America in the late 19th century. Before the greys arrived, the UK was home to about 3.5 million reds; today, only 120,000–160,000 remain.

Reds have suffered at the paws of greys. Their larger, non-native cousins outcompete them for food and also carry the squirrel pox virus, which is often fatal to reds but not to greys. Scientists have worked to develop a vaccine to protect red squirrels from the disease, but inoculation isn’t much use when it comes to a ransacked larder.

Currently, attempts to control the grey squirrel population involve poisoning or trapping and shooting. But conservationists are exploring more humane ways of keeping their numbers in check. One idea is to use pine martens, which prey on squirrels. Research has shown that woodlands with higher numbers of pine martens host fewer greys and more reds; scientists think that the smaller reds can escape predation by perching on thinner branches that can’t support the weight of greys or martens. However, some conservationists are concerned that increased numbers of pine martens would have an impact on bird populations, too.

A proposal to suppress the grey squirrel population using a contraceptive has also received Government backing, but there are concerns that this approach wouldn’t be species-specific – that food laced with drugs could be consumed by other animals, too.

Clearly, current strategies are largely failing to control numbers of grey squirrels – aliens that cost the UK £40 million a year from damage to broadleaved forest. So eyes are turning to other methods.

“ Current strategies are largely failing to control numbers of grey squirrels.”

Enter CRISPR-Cas9, a gene-editing technique that enables scientists to rewrite the DNA of a species. (A CRISPR is a specialised stretch of DNA; Cas9 is an enzyme that acts rather like a pair of molecular scissors, cutting strands of DNA.)

This technique allows scientists to find a specific part of a genome (the complete set of genes of a cell or organism) and edit it – to remove an unwanted gene or insert a new one. The ability to simply change the DNA within a species’ genome, without adding any DNA from a different species, could provide a faster route to a desired outcome that would otherwise require decades of traditional selective breeding.

“The beauty of CRISPR-Cas9 is its ability to target a specific location in the genome in a more precise manner than previous genetic engineering tools enabled us to do,” says Todd Kuiken, senior research scholar in the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM BBC WILDLIFEView All

Can The World's Tallest Trees Survive?

Some 30 million people a year make a pilgrimage to northern California to see the towering coastal redwoods. But can the remaining stands of these remarkable trees survive the triple scourge of climate change, drought and wildfires?

8 mins read
BBC Wildlife
October 2021

Hidden BRITAIN

NICK BAKER Reveals a fascinating world of wildlife that we often overlook.

2 mins read
BBC Wildlife
October 2021

Scottish beavers on the rise

Eurasian beaver numbers are expanding fast, but not without conflict with farmers and landowners.

2 mins read
BBC Wildlife
October 2021

FADING queen

Far away in French Polynesia, a little songbird is clinging on to survival. Can the Fatu Hiva monarch beat the odds?

8 mins read
BBC Wildlife
October 2021

MIKE DILGER'S WILDLIFE WATCHING

ON THE MUDFLATS In his series of great places to watch wildlife in the UK, the star of BBC One’s The One Show points out the surprising joys to be taken from the muddiest of places, teeming with invertebrates and a refuge for waders and wildfowl.

5 mins read
BBC Wildlife
October 2021

Seabird chicks fall foul of giant centipedes

Petrels are among the unexpectedly varied diet of the very hungry arthropods.

2 mins read
BBC Wildlife
October 2021

The RIDDLE of the ROAN

Blighted by clumsy conservation could there now be signs of hope for Africa’s second largest antelopes?

9 mins read
BBC Wildlife
October 2021

LOST SOULS

In May, a minke whale got lost in the Thames, capturing the nation's interest. But why do whales swim up rivers? And how can they be helped?

9 mins read
BBC Wildlife
October 2021

Spotted among the trees

Capturing the perfect shot of a jaguar in the vast tropical forests of French Guiana proved a tough challenge for Emmanuel.

1 min read
BBC Wildlife
October 2021

WILDMONTH

Golden leaves, delicate fungi and migrant wildfowl in all their finery – it’s time to embrace autumn.

4 mins read
BBC Wildlife
October 2021
RELATED STORIES

Tom & Haleya AWKWARD EXES

The Mission: Impossible co-stars are navigating a breakup while still filming!

1 min read
Star
October 25, 2021

UK PERMITS DEVELOPMENT OF GENE-EDITED CROPS IN LIMATE FIGHT

Britain’s government plans to allow researchers to use gene-editing techniques to develop crops that can increase yields, reduce the need for pesticides, and cut greenhouse gas emissions as the U.K.’s exit from the European Union allows it to deviate from the bloc’s rules.

1 min read
Techlife News
Techlife News #518

UK ENERGY CRISIS: GOVT IN CO2 DEAL TO AVERT FOOD SHORTAGES

The British government agreed to support an American-owned firm that produces much of the U.K.’s carbon dioxide, a deal designed to avert shortages of meat, poultry and packaged foods amid a crisis triggered by soaring energy costs.

3 mins read
AppleMagazine
September 24, 2021

POKÉMONSTER HUNTER

MONSTER HUNTER STORIES 2: WINGS OF RUIN is an approachable spin-off.

3 mins read
PC Gamer US Edition
November 2021

FACEBOOK SLAMS UK ANTITRUST WATCHDOG OVER CALL TO SELL GIPHY

Facebook has criticized the U.K. competition watchdog’s provisional decision ordering that it sell offGiphy because it said the acquisition of the company stifles competition for animated images.

1 min read
Techlife News
Techlife News #515

Tuning In to a Happier City

Noise is an irritant of urban life. But there are ways to make it easier on the ears—and the psyche

10+ mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
September 06, 2021

TIKTOK TO LET USERS SHOP THROUGH APP WITH SHOPIFY DEAL

TikTok users will soon be able to buy stuff directly through the short videos on the app — something they had only been able to do through ads until now.

1 min read
AppleMagazine
August 27, 2021

Revival of the Fittest

ORIGIN EFFECTS RD COMPACT HOT ROD

4 mins read
Guitar World
October 2021

FACEBOOK'S OWNERSHIP OF GIPHY HURTS COMPETITION

Facebook’s ownership of Giphy will hurt competition for animated images, U.K. regulators said Thursday, meaning the social network could ultimately be forced to unwind the deal if the provisional findings are confirmed.

2 mins read
Techlife News
Techlife News #511

SHOCK & AWE

COMPANY OF HEROES 3 is coming to wake up the RTS genre.

10+ mins read
PC Gamer US Edition
October 2021