A research project funded by the European Squirrel Initiative (ESI) is said to be providing promising results that could lead to a humane, species-specific and cost-effective solution to managing invasive grey squirrel populations in the UK.

Direct Inheritance of Gender Bias (DIGB) technology is a novel strategy for managing grey squirrel numbers. The technology is being developed and evaluated through the research project, led by Professor Bruce Whitelaw and Gus McFarlane of the Roslin Institute.

The genetic management approach builds on the scientific understanding of naturally occurring selfish genetic elements, that bias their own inheritance, and therefore spread themselves through a population.

This means DIGB could be used to spread a female infertility gene through a targeted population of grey squirrels, leading in time to population decline owing to the lack of fertile female squirrels available as breeding partners.

Computational population modelling research has demonstrated that DIGB could theoretically suppress grey squirrel populations by over 60 per cent within 10 years, and has the potential to completely remove the pest from specific areas within 20 years.

READ MORE: Grey squirrels to do over £1.1 billion in woodland damage

Early outputs from laboratory-based research have demonstrated the ability to introduce DIGB tools into squirrel cells and subsequently edit the squirrel genome at desired target genes – a prerequisite for developing the technology.

Professor Whitelaw said: “We believe DIGB holds great promise for managing damaging invasive species, such as the grey squirrel. This is an exciting time for the technology and these results encourage us to continue to develop, test and evaluate this technology.”

Graham Taylor, chairman of the ESI, added: “This is potentially ground-breaking news, and demonstrates science coming to our rescue. We have documented the damage grey squirrels cause to the UK, both economically and ecologically.

“Not only could this research provide a humane and cost-effective solution to the problem of grey squirrels, but it could also be applicable to other alien, non-native species, and be of huge environmental benefit for our country.”

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