Kiwi researchers investigating if gene editing could eradicate possums from New Zealand

Otago University researchers are looking at the possibility of editing possums' genes, which could then be used to control their population in the future.

"It's a world-first approach to being able to edit genes in possums," says Professor Dan Tompkins, Predator Free 2050's science director.

To be able to do that, they will first try and transplant immature sex cells from possum to possum.

"There's no genetic modification at this point, but if we can show those cells that go on to make sperm and egg are able to be transplanted, then that means any modifications we make are passed onto the next generation," says research leader Dr Tim Hore.

Predator Free 2050 Limited is funneling $300,000 into the research.

“We could look to see a better understanding of how possums breed, so can we start to target their breeding through some sort of fertility control to control their populations,” says Tompkins.

The cell transfer could be achieved within the next couple of years. If it's successful, using genetic technology would be the next step and would be at least a decade away. But only if there is change to the law that restricts genetic modification, and social acceptance.

“These are discussions we want to have. There's no pressure, we're not trying to push any agenda. We're just here to help people understand what these options are,” says Tompkins.

Environment Minister David Parker said in a statement there are no current plans to review the GE regulatory settings for predator control, but they're open to research being conducted in the area.

It’s estimated the Government spends more than $55 million a year on possum control, while the damage inflicted by the pests cost farmers about $40 million annually.