The Galapagos Islands. White, sandy beaches, warm, blue sparkling waters and home to some of the most curious and magnificent animals our planet has to offer. Giant tortoises, Komodo dragons, sea turtles, iguanas and flamingos are just a taster of the species that can be found on the 19 volcanic islands that make up the Galapagos. So, what does Jurassic Park have to do with the Galapagos Islands? Am I going to announce that this is in fact a place where for the past few years there have been top secret genetic experiments to rear dinosaurs? Are velociraptors stalking the islands? Are Tyrannosaurus Rex making Komodo’s look like cuddly teddy bears? Thankfully, no. Put those fantasies and images of Jeff Goldblum and Sam Neil charging around the islands to bed, because it’s not quite that dramatic. In fact, the link here, albeit the very tenuous link, is to do with an animal that seems to get just about everywhere. Rats.
Now, we all know about the plague. And we have all heard how those rats scampered aboard ships and managed to spread the fleas that carried the bubonic plague across Europe, causing one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. Well, fast forward to the 21st century and those rats have remained true to their trusty old tricks of seafaring. However, the consequences of this are now beginning to become apparent, as brown and black rats have found themselves at all sorts of new destinations, sometimes destinations where rats have never been before, destinations where they find themselves classed as invasive species. The Galapagos Islands happens to be one of those destinations.
As we know, rats can be a huge threat to ecosystems. They are capable of decimating the populations of ground nesting birds and have had huge effects on such species in locations a little closer to home, such as the Isles of Scilly and Orkney. On the Galapagos Islands, rats are also having a detrimental impact on species, including the populations of Giant tortoise, with rats taking not only the eggs of this species, but also the young. In fact, the problem is so bad that one species of Galapagos tortoise has had no natural reproduction on the islands for a century and some species of bird have become classed as ‘critically endangered.’ So, how do you deal with an invasive? Well, this is where Jurassic Park comes into it (finally). No, we’re not realeasing dinosaurs to chase those pesky rats, but there has been another suggestion. A suggestion of genetic modification.
This is the moment where we recoil for a minute as we consider the magnitude of those words. Genetic modification, or ‘gene driving’ to be precise. But is it such a big thing these days? We have already delved into the world of genetics with the constant hope to delve even further. So, what’s the plan? Well, it is much like Jurassic Park, where if you remember:
‘All the animals in Jurassic Park are female.’
Cue the fabulous argument from Jeff. So, are all the rats going to be modified to be female so they cannot breed? Not quite, in fact, quite the opposite. The hope is that all the rats on the Galapagos will be male. How? Well, putting it very very simply, scientists hope to modify captive rats so that they harbour a reproductive gene that will only produce male offspring. These genetically modified rats would then be released onto the Islands and over time, the population of rats will become smaller and smaller, until males are the only gender on the Island. Then, with no available females to breed with, the rats will die out and the ecosystem will be able to recover. Fair enough, right? In theory, but there is one major floor in this well laid plan. A genetically modified gene has never been released into the wild. Except of course in Jurassic Park and we all know what happened there. Of course, Jurassic Park is fiction and the Galapagos Island is not going to be littered with giant killer rats that take over the Islands. But the fact remains that we cannot know all the possible outcomes of such a plan.
Should such a thing be attempted? It could be a great success and it could pave the way for more genetic experiments that follow this path! On the other hand, it may not work and it may have the potential to cause more problems than we had in the first place. My elder sister is a disease geneticist, so I asked her her opinion on the genetic modification of an animal on the Galapagos. Her answer was short, but as she knows infinitely more on the subject than I do, I think I’ll take her word for it. What was her response?
“…I think it’s best not to mess with these things too much.”
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