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Predator Free 2050 Ltd Announces Funding For Genetics Research Into Possums

Predator Free 2050 Limited (PF2050 Ltd) has partnered with the University of Otago to support a research team investigating new genetic technologies that could help eradicate possums from Aotearoa New Zealand by 2050.

PF2050 Ltd Science Director Prof Dan Tompkins says possums are a serious economic and environmental threat, making possum eradication a national priority. The Government spends more than $55 million a year on possum control, on top of millions more by Regional Councils, while the damage inflicted by the pests cost farmers about $40 million annually.

"While the application of current tools and approaches for possum eradication will continue to improve, the scale of the Predator Free 2050 mission - national eradication - means that new solutions and approaches will also be needed," Prof Tompkins says.

"The University of Otago’s project team has been researching possum reproduction and development since 2019, with the long-term goal of creating genetic control solutions. Originally backed by MBIE’s Smart Ideas funding, we are now providing $300,000 to support the next step in this project. If successful, the team’s research could enable development of new possum eradication options. We are excited to see what they discover."

Research team leader Dr Tim Hore, of the University of Otago, says the PF2050 support is a valuable endorsement of their research strategy.

"While gene editing is going to be a valuable and flexible addition to the possum research toolkit, the techniques required to edit possum genes have not yet been developed.

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"We are addressing this by developing a novel method that involves targeting and transplanting immature sex cells of possum pouch young, rather than embryonic cells, before they develop into eggs or sperm. By focusing on unique quirks of possum biology, we hope to provide the tools for developing tailored and effective strategies for possum control," Dr Hore says.

"In one scenario, such technologies could be applied to possum biocontrol to create and spread genes that reduce fitness, resulting in gradual population decline and, ultimately, local eradication. Alternatively, our gene manipulation research could lead to massive gains without ever requiring field release. We can see gene technologies accelerating control strategies in the same way it has revolutionised biomedical science - essentially by allowing us to understand what genes do."

The project involves a core team of experts in mammalian cell biology, marsupial reproduction and genomics; Dr Hore, Dr Melanie Laird, and Dr Kyle Richardson, of the Department of Anatomy and Professor Andrew Pask, of the University of Melbourne.

The team is also leading analysis of the possum genome sequence, an additional collaborative project that provides basic knowledge for genetic control technologies, as well as a raft of other pest control and eradication methods.

The PF2050 Ltd funding contribution will support the project team’s research until 2023.

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