What are gene drives?

The term ‘gene drive’ refers to a group of technologies that are used to make a permanent change to a chosen set of genes in an organism. These genes influence the organism’s behaviour in some way – for example, by making them produce sterile offspring. This change then spreads through the population.

Gene drives are being investigated for a wide range of uses around the world, especially in the management of diseases spread by insects, such as malaria.

Who is involved with this project?

This project brings together experts on insect genetics, molecular biology, biosecurity, ecology, mātauranga Māori, environmental sociology, geography and science policy development. Our team includes international experts, as well as New Zealand experts in pest control and regulation.

Our partner organisations include University of Otago, Lincoln University, and Victoria University of Wellington, alongside Predator Free 2050 and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). We are also working closely with mana whenua and industry through our end-user advisory group.

Why do we need to control wasps?

Invasive wasps cause severe environmental damage in Aotearoa New Zealand. Wasps in beech forest now outweigh all the native birds plus stoats and rodents put together!


Wasps eat native arthropods and honeydew, which are important food sources for native birds such as kākā, tūī and korimako. Wasps also attack and kill native birds directly. Modelling suggests that to conserve vulnerable native species, wasp abundance needs to be reduced by about 80-90%. 

Wasps also have huge economic impacts. A 2015 report estimated that cost at $130 million per year, and the impact of wasps on beekeeping, pollination and honey production is increasing and is amplified by climate change. Year-on-year, approximately 12% of honeybee hive losses are due to wasp attacks.

Invasive wasps also affect us socially and culturally, due to their aggressive nature and toxic stings. They affect our enjoyment and safety outdoors, and cause injury and deaths.

What are the potential wider implications of gene drive?

While this programme focuses on invasive wasps, we will also address broader questions about the implications of gene drive technologies, including questions of ethics and cultural authority. 

Gene drives might be a breakthrough technology to ameliorate the billions of dollars we as a country spend on pest control every year. On the other hand, our work may show that we must look elsewhere for solutions to our pest problems. Either outcome would benefit New Zealand by steering us towards the development of the technologies we need.

Is this project driven or funded by commercial interests?

No. This project is funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) Endeavour Fund. The project will not decide on or develop commercial applications of any technology. 

Will this project decide if gene drive is released into the wild?

No. The project’s role is to enhance our society’s ability to make decisions about using genetic technologies in pest management, based on the best scientific evidence and knowledge of cultural and societal needs. Our role is not to advocate or make decisions.

Could this project have wider/unforeseen impacts on the environment?

No. We are not releasing gene-drives, genomes or genetic material into the environment. The work is being done in a contained lab environment that is inspected and approved by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) for this kind of work. This follows international best practice. Such experiments have been done for a long time in New Zealand without any containment issues.

How will this project consider te ao Māori worldviews and mātauranga Māori?

This programme is underpinned by ethical power-sharing, as it provides the opportunity to develop kaupapa Māori methods in the science behind developing and deploying gene  drives for wasps.

We have existing relationships with Māori organisations Tahuri Whenua and Te Tira Whakamataki, as well as with iwi and hapū in Northland, Tamaki Makaurau, Bay of Plenty, Gisborne, Wairarapa and Te Tau Ihu. Through these relationships, we will explore the richness of Māori perspectives on the impact of wasps, and help identify mātauranga Māori relevant to the development and use of gene drives.

How can I contribute to the discussion?

We recognise that public perceptions and attitudes towards genetic technologies vary widely  and we want to listen to your perspectives and concerns. This project is in its early phase, but check back regularly, as we will be creating a space to share knowledge and receive feedback.

In the meantime, if you have any questions or comments, please email [email protected]