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Gene tool holds promise of managing invasive species

Technology that enables inheritance of certain genes could help control grey squirrel numbers, computer models suggest.

Grey Squirrel

Technology that harnesses the ability of certain genes to be inherited by successive generations could offer a way to manage invasive species, according to computer simulations.

The method in development focuses on elements of DNA that are always passed on from one generation to the next. These can be edited to carry genetic material that will give rise to certain traits in the next generation.

The approach, known as Direct Inheritance Gender Bias (DIGB), could be used to spread a female infertility gene through a targeted population, such as specific populations of grey squirrels in areas where they are causing damage.

In time, this would lead to a lack of fertile females and population decline in those targeted areas, in a humane, species-specific and cost-effective approach.

The research, funded by the ESI (European Squirrel Initiative) and led by the Roslin Institute, could help to reverse the major decline in native red squirrels since the arrival of grey squirrels in the UK.

Preliminary results

Early findings from lab-based research show that DIGB tools could edit squirrel DNA at target genes in cells, which is a fundamental step for developing the technology.

These results pave the way for further development of the technology, such as expanding modelling work to incorporate ecological assessment, and contained testing of the technique in animals.

Computer-based modelling suggests that the approach could reduce a targeted grey squirrel population by more than 60 per cent within 10 years, and the potential to remove greys from specific areas within 20 years, with little risk to other populations.

We believe this method holds great promise for managing damaging invasive species, such as the grey squirrel, and enabling sustainable forest ecosystems to be formed. This is an exciting time for the technology and these results support the continued development, testing and evaluation of this technology.

Professor Bruce WhitelawGenus Personal Chair of Animal Biotechnology at the Roslin Institute

This research could not only provide a humane and cost-effective solution to the problem of grey squirrels, but could also be applicable to other alien, non-native species, and be of huge environmental benefit for our country.

Graham TaylorChairman of ESI

The results are published in Scientific Reports.

** The Roslin Institute receives strategic investment funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and it is part of the University of Edinburghs Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. **


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Scientific publication

Image credit: Sarah McNeil and ESI