GM Virus Targets Specific Mammals

GM Virus Created Which Will
Target, Eliminate Specific Mammals

UPI Science News

SYDNEY, Australia (UPI) -- Researchers have developed a process
to genetically engineer viruses to decimate targeted feral pests, such
as mice and rabbits, by making them sterile.

The researchers, from the Pest Animal Control Cooperative Research
Center in Canberra, said they have been working on the project for
more than 10 years. The process, called immuno-contraception, causes
infected females to produce antibodies against their own eggs, damaging
them and blocking fertilization.

The immuno-contraception idea has already been tested against a major
pest, the European house mouse. An engineered herpes virus, Murine
cytomegalovirus, has produced 100 percent sterilization of female mice
in laboratory trials.

It is an idea with massive global implications, researchers said.

"In Australia, mouse plagues cost the country $75 million in lost production,
" the project director, Tony Peacock, told United Press International.

Overseas, the rodent problem is even bigger. "Rice field rats in Asia eat
$9 billion worth of rice every year," Peacock said. "That's one-third of the
Asian rice crop. If we can successfully develop the virus in mice, as we
appear to be able to do, then we believe we can also do it in rats."

The research team also is working on engineering a virus for rabbits --
Australia's number one feral pest, which causes widespread erosion --
by adding a gene to the myxoma virus that devastated rabbit populations
when it first appeared in Australia 51 years ago.

In the intervening years, many rabbits have become resistant to myxoma
and less lethal strains have surfaced.

This led scientists to release a virus called the rabbit calicivirus disease in
the 1990s, which drastically reduced rabbit populations. Today, however,
about 300 million rabbits dwell in southern half of the country.

Peacock said he hopes the transgenic myxoma virus will be even more
effective than the original strain. In two trials this year, it sterilized eight
out of 11 female domestic rabbits -- a success rate of over 70 percent.

"We're not promoting the virus as a magic bullet," Peacock said. "There
will always be a residual population. It will need to be used as part of
an integrated approach."

Clearly he is hoping the expression, "to breed like rabbits," eventually
will become a thing of the past.

Peacock said apart from its effectiveness, the virus is more humane than
other lethal methods such as poisoning and shooting, giving most rabbits
no more than a fever for a few days. It also is easily transmitted by
mosquitoes and fleas, involves no toxic chemicals that could otherwise
affect non-target species and is far more cost-effective than traditional
methods such as ripping burrows.

Biological controls are not new to Australia. In recent years, bacteria,
parasitic wasps, sap-sucking bugs and parasitic worms all have been
released into the wild. Although many have been successful, some species
themselves have become problems. The cane toad, introduced in
Queensland in 1935 to control beetles that were ruining sugarcane crops,
is an infamous example of a biological agent that multiplied out of control.

Such experiences have left some scientists, politicians and the public
wary of releasing new biological controls.

However, the team has received support from other experts in the field.

"The research has strong support from us and from animal welfare groups,"
Andrew Leys, Statewide Pest Coordinator for the New South Wales
National Parks and Wildlife Service, told UPI. "Even if it reduces rabbit
numbers by just 50 percent, it would be wonderful."

Quentin Hart, from the National Feral Animal Control Program, was more
circumspect. "Our attitude to fertility control is that it's a good thing if it
works and if it is safe," he told UPI. "But there are a lot of political and
technical hurdles to overcome when you talk about releasing a modified
organism into the environment. And even if you overcome these, you need
to sterilize a large proportion of the target population to have an effect."

Peacock estimates the research team is some five years away from the
point when it can release the virus into the wild.

The research is reported in the August 10 issue of New Scientist magazine

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