Gene drives for invasive wasp control: Extinction is unlikely, with suppression dependent on dispersal and growth rates

P. J. Lester, D. O'Sullivan and G. L. W. Perry,  Ecological Applications,  2023.

Gene drives offer a potentially revolutionary method for pest control over large spatial extents. These genetic modifications spread deleterious variants through a population and have been proposed as methods for pest suppression or even eradication. We examined the influence of local dispersal, long-distance and/or human-mediated dispersal, and variation in population growth, on the success of a gene drive for the control of invasive social wasps (Vespula vulgaris). Our simulations incorporated a spatially realistic environment containing variable habitat quality in New Zealand. Pest eradication was not observed, except in extreme and unrealistic scenarios of constant, widespread, and spatially intense releases of genetically modified individuals every year for decades. Instead, the regional persistence of genetically modified and wild-type wasps was predicted. Simulations using spatially homogeneous versus realistic landscapes (incorporating uninhabitable areas and dispersal barriers) showed little difference in overall population dynamics. Overall, little impact on wasp abundance was observed in the first 15?years post-introduction. After 25?years, populations were suppressed to levels <95% of starting populations. Populations exhibited ?chase dynamics? with population cycles in space, with local extinction occurring in some areas while wasps became abundant in others. Increasing the wasps’ local dispersal distance increased the spatial and temporal variability of the occupied area and population suppression. Varying levels of human-associated long-distance dispersal had little effect on population dynamics. Increasing intrinsic population growth rates interacted with local dispersal to cause higher mean populations and substantially higher levels of variation in population suppression and the total amount of landscape occupied. Gene drives appear unlikely to cause a rapid and widespread extinction of this and probably other pests, but could offer long-term and cost-effective methods of pest suppression. The predicted level of <95% pest suppression would substantially reduce the predation pressure and competitive interactions of this invasive wasp on native species. However, the predicted long-term persistence of genetically modified pests will influence the ethics and likelihood of using gene drives for pest control, especially given concerns that modified wasps would eventually be transported back to their home range.

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