Pushing Forward: A Review of 2019 from the GBIRd Partnership

Island Conservation’s GBIRd program manager Royden Saah takes a look back at the partnership’s 2019 accomplishments.

The Genetic Biocontrol of Invasive Rodents Program, or GBIRd, is composed of experts from universities, non-profits including Island Conservation, and government agencies who came together to study new technologies capable of preventing extinctions. Island Conservation has been preventing extinctions by removing invasive rodents from islands for 25 years and the results are mighty. Our partnership’s goal is to create novel technology in a mouse that can eradicate invasive mice from islands (and eventually other rodents) to protect native island wildlife. This technology would give conservationists a safer, more humane, and flexible tool than methods that are currently available.

Over the past year we have made advancements in both biological research and responsible stakeholder engagements. In late 2018, with the support of our colleagues from the Western Australia Department of Biodiversity, Conservation & Attractions and the Center for Invasive Species Solutions, we began to develop a 5-year Business plan and GBIRd Charter to guide our growth and finances moving forward. Additionally, Island Conservation with support from the Outreach Network for Gene Drive Research (ONGDR) pursue stakeholder engagement on a global scale including presenting the GBIRd program at the UN Convention for Biological Diversity in Egypt, highlighting technological progress, novel developments in safety mechanisms, and hosting stakeholder engagements.

Gregg Howald of Island Conservation making intervention in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, Nov 2018.

In 2019, Island Conservation met with the Tata Institute for Genetics and Society at UCSD for two days and introduced them to conventional operations and the GBIRd effort. Together, we focused on our approaches to stakeholder engagement, operational logistics, and risk assessments, in and around this type of technology. We cemented our relationship with a workshop in August to continue the conversation and advance the biological mechanisms needed in our projects.

Island Conservation along with ONDGR had the opportunity to present at multiple IUCN Regional Conservation Fora. In light of the ominous IPBES Global Assessment calling for “transformative changes across…technological factors,” we were able to highlight the importance of invasive species removal on islands and how our effort may slow the trend toward global mass extinction. We communicated current practices and success as well as the need for transformative tools during this unprecedented time of human induced impact to global biodiversity. 

Selection of GBIRd publications from 2019.

October 2019 had several GBIRd partners from NCSU and Island Conservation presenting at the African Union Headquarters during the Gene Drive Research Forum sponsored by the FNIH and the African Union Development Agency. Leaders in the field of gene drives and active genetics, including Target Malaria, TIGS, National Institutes of Health and others worked together to solve related challenges, with emphasis on the topic of data sharing. Island Conservation had the privilege of coordinating the 4th Annual Meeting of the GBIRd Program which typified our interdisciplinary effort by facilitating discussions and strategies into a variety of topics areas including ethics, regulatory engagement, and mammalian genetics, with equal attention and concern. Representatives from 11 organizations from the United States, Australia, and New Zealand contributed. The final day of the meeting included a curated examination of how art and artists can and should contribute to the societal considerations of genetic technologies like ours. The team took delight when Margaret Atwood discussed her perspectives on the use of gene drives to prevent extinctions on islands. The most exciting news from the meeting is that GBIRd has been asked to co-host the 2020 Gene Drive Research Forum, which brings together philanthropists and researchers developing gene drive technologies for public good. 

We look forward to a successful year and sharing further progress towards our goal of responsibly developing a genetic tool to preserve biodiversity on islands. 

Featured photo: GBIRd partners at the 2018 Annual GBIRd meeting in Exmouth, AU.