Kiwi conservation workers are happy for gene-editing approaches to be used on unwanted pests - but don't want to go there with the cherished native species we're battling to protect.

Many conservationists would in fact rather see us lose endangered species than tamper with their genes to try save them, a just-published study has suggested.

Researchers surveyed nearly 150 Department on Conservation staff on their views toward using gene-editing in the future to save endangered animal species and "de-extinction" to resurrect those already lost.

Given the number of native species that have been wiped out over the past 150 years - along with those remaining species with very low genetic diversity and the tide of invasive mammal predators threatening them - New Zealand was arguably a good testing ground for de-extinction and gene-editing.


But the study's lead author, Dr Helen Taylor of Otago University, said there was clearly strong opposition from some conservation practitioners to the idea of resurrecting extinct species when doing that might divert funding away from existing conservation projects.

Of those surveyed, 62 per cent considered de-extinction would be impossible to achieve in their lifetimes, while 47 per cent thought it could be a useful conservation and pest control tool.

As for gene-editing, support for the controversial approach depended on which species were being altered.

"When we asked DOC staff whether they would be prepared to consider gene editing to save a native species from extinction, 41 per cent of respondents said they would rather see the species go extinct," Taylor said.

"Yet when we flipped that question to ask whether gene editing should be used for eradicating introduced species, 85 per cent were in favour.

"It's interesting that people had real concerns about 'playing God' when it came to native species, but not so much for the perceived 'bad guys' - the invasive species."

These concerns about "playing God" demonstrated that attitudes towards synthetic biology, including gene editing and de-extinction, were not always objective or information-based, she said.

"These are value judgments with ethical implications - simply providing more information may not change opinion on these topics for conservation practitioners or anyone else."


Taylor said progress in gene-editing and de-extinction research was rapid, with scientists likely not too far off splicing genes from extinct species into embryos of their modern relatives.

Securing the support of many parties, including conservation practitioners, would be the key to the success of any synthetic biology-conservation endeavour.

"That's because it's likely the burden of maintaining a resurrected species in the wild, or managing the outcomes of a gene-editing intervention, would fall on those already under-resourced conservation staff."

She said it was widely acknowledged that a gap existed between genetics research and conservation practice, which could widen with increased use of genomics.

"It is therefore vital to understand practitioner attitudes to conservation-driven de-extinction and gene-editing. This is a good start, but the conversation needs to continue."

In a 2016 report to the Government on its predator-free 2050 plan, DoC said it was likely a genetically engineered solution would be needed to help reach the goal, and that it should expect some staunch opposition from the public.

DoC director-general of science and policy, Bruce Parkes, said the department was keeping an "open mind" on future options, ensuring that any new technologies to control or eradicate introduced pests were researched, tested, safe and socially acceptable.

"De-extinction is not an immediate prospect and there is no DoC policy on the issue."

Parkes said DoC conservation workers, like most people, would want to understand the technology and science behind before committing to a position.

"As committed conservationists they know that hard decisions have to be made in the best interests of wildlife."

The study, published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, was co-authored by Dr Yolanda van Heezik, of the university's Department of Zoology, and Dr Nicolas Dussex, formerly of Otago's Department of Anatomy but now at the Department of Bioinformatics and Genetics at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm.

It follows another recent study led by Taylor that suggested DOC staff lack the funding and expertise to use modern genetic-based approaches used to avoid inbreeding, manage translocations, and figure out how species are related.