Islands around New Zealand have been eyed up for field trials using genetically-altered rodents in experiments to be funded by the United States military's most advanced science research agency, documents show.

And when it was found some rodent-infested islands weren't suitable, documents show there was consideration given to putting genetically-altered mice on to pest-free islands.

The details are revealed amid thousands of documents charting the rise of a multinational consortium called GBird which is pushing for research into new gene drive technology.

Gene drive technology is emerging as a world-changing prospect after the discovery of straight-forward ways of editing DNA to remove traits that might normally be inherited.

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In pest control circles, the focus is usually on eradicating one gender from a population of confined rodents - such as those on an island - to force that group into extinction.

But there is also a call for caution with many in the science community calling for greater rules around use of the technology to be established before anyone starts using it.

The documents reveal New Zealand's taxpayer-owned Landcare Research is among GBird's membership of seven which recently won access to $6.5m in military research funding.

They also show how GBird - which stands for Genetic Biocontrol of Invasive Rodents - went on to develop relationships with key players in our pest control movement while sizing up the country for trials of the technology.

That includes reports about meetings with and emails between Gbird people and Department of Conservation officials, discussing funding and research on public attitudes to trials in New Zealand.

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage said she was asking questions of DoC and Predator Free 2050 on what contacts it has had with Gbird or Darpa.

Mice and rats are the proposed targets of a gene drive trial which could see the rodents ability to produce more than one gender turned off. Photo / D.Mudge
Mice and rats are the proposed targets of a gene drive trial which could see the rodents ability to produce more than one gender turned off. Photo / D.Mudge

"Gene editing is an unproven technology for predator control. Gene technologies are problematic and untested and have significant risks."

The North Carolina State University documents include a meeting report to GBird members - including Landcare Research - in which New Zealand islands are considered for trials of the technology. NCSU is also a Gbird member and the body which won the $6.5m Darpa funding.

The report, from co-ordinator Royden Saah, came after a meeting in July with University of Auckland senior lecturer Dr James Russell, who led research on wiping out pests on islands.

Saah told GBird there were no New Zealand islands with rodents that fitted with the DARPA funding.

"We are now considering small NZ islands that don't have rodents present that could be used as trial sites, with mice sourced from remote NZ islands larger than our 300ha cut-off that may be future targets themselves [but not initial trial islands]."

New Zealand's member on the GBird steering committee, Dr Dan Tompkins from Landcare Research, confirmed the group had visited New Zealand and was focused on using gene drive technology for pest eradication.

"They have been looking around for potential test sites. We're talking five to 10 years down the line if everything aligns."

Tompkin said Gbird had "been talking to James Russell and DoC about whether there are suitable sites in New Zealand".

 Dr James Russell of the school of biological sciences at the University of Auckland. Photo / Supplied
Dr James Russell of the school of biological sciences at the University of Auckland. Photo / Supplied

He said nothing was going ahead without New Zealand agreeing as a country to accept the technology.

"Would these things be socially acceptable? There is a potential for them to be used on pest control.

"A lot of it is just people talking in theory. [The technology] doesn't exist yet."

The trove of documents shows Landcare Research signed up to Gbird's advocacy, promising in the Memorandum of Understanding to "co-ordinate a 'NZ incorporated' engagement with, and support for, Gbird".

It is the only organisation of the seven members to offer specific championing across government of Gbird and its interest in gene drive technology.

Documents show Tompkins introduced Gbird members to those across New Zealand's pest eradication management - people he had professional contact with through his role at Landcare Research and as the person drafting the Pest Free 2050 research strategy.

The documents also show Gbird's efforts to understand how New Zealand feels about the technology with keen interest shown in a DoC-managed survey on attitudes around technology and pest control.

In one of the emails, DoC's senior research Dr Edy MacDonald offers to make the survey available to Gbird in the United States before the date it was eventually released to the New Zealand public.

Gene drive research is believed to offer opportunities to eradicate predators.
Gene drive research is believed to offer opportunities to eradicate predators.

DoC says it has nothing to do with Gbird, although it said MacDonald had shared research. In a later statement, DoC changed direction and said she had not.

Gbird's public relations director Heath Packard confirmed islands such as those surrounding New Zealand were of interest in future trials.

He said no island had yet been decided in any country for trials which were "likely years away" from even asking if they should be done.

"In preparation of that GBird has been developing criteria for looking for potential field trial island sites.

"One of those criteria is that the site must be governed by countries with highly developed regulatory programmes and capacity like NZ, Australia, or the USA.

"We are currently exploring potential sites with the sole purpose securing genetic samples of island mice to determine if it is possible to identify locally fixed alleles in the population that is not found in other populations off island."

He said there were no funding arrangements in place with DoC or any other party in New Zealand.

Packard also confirmed conversations had taken place with DoC, and continued in relation to "helping co-ordinate potential Maori participation on GBird's independent ethics committee".

"The purpose of this is to have representation of indigenous community views which we are also seeking from other countries."

Mice and rats are the proposed targets of a gene drive trial which could see the rodents ability to produce more than one gender turned off. Photo / D.Mudge
Mice and rats are the proposed targets of a gene drive trial which could see the rodents ability to produce more than one gender turned off. Photo / D.Mudge

The documents were provided to the Herald through ETC Group, a lobby group which has represented small-scale farmers and shifted to opposing genetic modification.

Co-executive director Jim Thomas said the documents have revealed the scale of Darpa investment in gene drive research is US$100m - much higher than previously known.

He said the funding from the US military saw research bodies such as GBird working hard to shape their public image to win public support for trials.

"What you hear is that gene drive developers want to talk about [fighting] malaria, conservation and getting rid of predators. They do not want to talk about food. They do not want to talk about military interests."

Thomas said the area was untested and because of this he was surprised to see the documents reveal ongoing contact between Gbird and New Zealand public officials.

Professor Neil Gemmell said it was possible for outside interests to influence New Zealand's pest control strategy "if we let them".

Professor Neil Gemmell of Otago University has called for calm and caution on gene drive technology. Photo / ODT
Professor Neil Gemmell of Otago University has called for calm and caution on gene drive technology. Photo / ODT

He said an independent body to manage and oversee interactions and research on gene drives and a rigorous monitor of potential conflicts of interest was necessary.

Forest & Bird chief executive Kevin Hague said there was a lack of co-ordination among the various agencies and people involved in Pest Free 2050.

That lack of organisation came at a time where New Zealand was of intense interest to pest eradication researchers around the world.

Hague said it was unlikely national views on genetic modification had changed much since opposition 15 years ago. "I'm pretty sure there will be vigorous opposition to genetic technology."

The documents were obtained for ETC Group by researcher Edward Hammond and the Third World Network through the Freedom of Information Act.