January 17, 2020, by Brigitte Nerlich

Gene drive and grey squirrels: Science and media

At the beginning of January 2019 an article, entitled “Accelerating Evolution” appeared in The Biologist, a journal published by the Royal Society of Biology (The Biologist 66(6) p18-21). The authors, Bruce Whitelaw and Gus McFarlane, work at the Roslin Institute in Scotland which was involved with the creation of Dolly the cloned sheep in 1996, coincidentally the occasion of my first ever article in the field of science and society studies (Nerlich et al., 1999). 

Gene drive and… squirrels

The paper is about gene drives, that is, “how this technology works, and how it could be used in conservation and agriculture as well as public health”. The Royal Society of Biology announced it on Twitter as “Bruce Whitelaw and Gus McFarlane look at new uses for artificial gene drives – from fighting lice on fish farms to helping amphibians battle fungal diseases”.

Although the paper by Whitelaw and McFarlane does not particularly focus on grey squirrelsthey became the centre of attention in the (rather limited) newspaper coverage that followed. This is perhaps not surprising, as McFarlane is just starting a project entitled “Gene drives for controlling the invasive Grey Squirrel in the UK”.

Grey squirrels were introduced to the UK from North America in the 19th century and are regarded as threatening the survival of red squirrels, native to the British Isles. (In this short post I can’t go into the controversies surrounding the definition of invasive or introduced species in general and how to deal with grey squirrels in particular, although this is a fascinating topic, see here and here for example).

One of my garden squirrels

As readers know, I am interested in the way ‘gene drive’ is being communicated in public. I have written blog posts about various types of gene drive used mainly in efforts to eliminate malaria carrying mosquitoes. I have also written one post about gene drive in mice. Grey Squirrels are a new addition to my ‘gene drive in the media’ surveillance efforts. (Although they peaked their heads out of some articles in 2017, also referring to work on rodents by Whitelaw and McFarlane, but were sort of swamped by stories about mosquitoes)

The current article by Whitelaw and McFarlane starts with a very good description/definition of what ‘gene drive’ is, which is really worth reading. It then goes on to describe what gene drives could achieve in terms of not only eliminating invasive pests, such as rabbits in Australia, possums in New Zealand, grey squirrels in the UK and rodents more globally, but also conserving species, especially mammals and amphibians, from moose to fish (here the issue is how to deal with “the pressing issue of sea lice in fish farming or the eradication of the New World screwworm”).   

Gene drive and media coverage

Nine articles overall reported on this in the English Language News, most from the UK, with a focus on Scottish newspapers, and one article from New Zealand, a country also interested in gene drive for the elimination of invasive pests. I later also found an article not recorded in Nexis, the news database I used, published in The Australian (which, apart from the title, is equivalent to the one published in The Sunday Times).   

All the news reports focused on the grey squirrel, a mammal which had only been mentioned once in the original paper in The Biologist! None of the other mammals alluded to in the paper make an appearance in the newspapers, but are replaced instead by minks, ring-necked parakeets and muntjac deer, for example. 

Here is the list of the articles I looked at: 

Mission to save Britain’s red squirrels by altering DNA of rival greys so they die out is launched by same team of scientists who cloned Dolly the sheep, Lara Keay For MailonlineMailOnline, SCIENCE; Version:1, (January 5, 2020 Sunday)  

First they cloned Dolly the sheep. Now they’re targeting grey squirrels; Researchers plan to engineer males to spread infertility through the grey population and bring red squirrels back to Britain, Jonathan Leake, The Sunday Times (London), NEWS; Pg. 3, (January 5, 2020 Sunday)  

Dolly the Sheep scientists hope DNA editing can wipe out grey squirrels, Martyn Mclaughlin, Scotsman, (January 5, 2020 Sunday)  

Red squirrels to thrive again in Britain as new plan considered to eradicate grey breed; RED SQUIRRELS could soon be thriving in Britain again as a new plan to put an end to destructive grey squirrels is being developed., Wesley Hudson, Express Online, (January 5, 2020 Sunday)  

DNA ‘edit’ could stamp out grey squirrel pests, Andrew Levy, Irish Daily Mail, NEWS; Pg. 17, (January 6, 2020 Monday)  


DNA ‘edit’ that could wipe out grey invaders, Andrew Levy, Scottish Daily Mail, NEWS; Pg. 25, (January 6, 2020 Monday)  

DNA edit to end grey squirrels, Jonathan Leake, thetimes.co.uk, NEWS; Version:1, (January 6, 2020 Monday)  

Gene edit may wipe out pests, Marlborough Express (New Zealand), NEWS; NATIONAL; Pg. 15, (January 6, 2020 Monday)  

Gene drive and DNA editing 

The first article appeared in the Mail Online and introduced ‘gene drive’ as DNA modification and altering DNA in male grey squirrels so they can pass on infertility to female greys. Other articles talk mainly about ‘editing DNA’ (‘gene edit’ occurs once, ‘DNA tweak’ once, ‘engineer’ once, ‘team of genome engineers’ once). ‘Gene drive’ is generally defined as editing grey squirrels’ DNA to ensure females are born infertile, and as “designed to spread relentlessly through the population”. (Express and elsewhere)  

Many articles enumerate all the many ways in which grey squirrels pose a danger to red squirrels. Some articles also provide accounts of how they pose a threat to trees, something that is discussed in the context of climate change and tree planting initiatives.  

The main actors 

The main actors quoted in the articles are Bruce Whitelaw and Gus McFarlane of the Roslin Institute, the European Squirrel Initiative that funds their research and its spokesperson Andrew Kednall, Jennifer White of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals who opposes such research, Sir Harry Studholme, chairman of the Forestry Commission and also Craig Shuttleworth an ecologist.  

The main metaphors: War and destruction 

When you read the article in The Biologist you’ll be hard pressed to find any interesting metaphors, apart from, perhaps, the title. What about the reporting on this article, also based on interviews with the above actors? I was not surprised to see that the articles all use the language of war and battle, of killing and of enemies, something that, it seems, the scientists and other stakeholders had tried to avoid in the original article and in the interviews.  

Although never used in the original article, ‘wipe out’ or ‘wiping out’ is used six times in the nine press articles together with ‘targeting’ and ‘stamp out’. This framing of ‘invasive species’ through the lens of war is common, just as it is in talk about the management of infectious diseases (see Larson, Nerlich and Wallis, 2005).

In the articles here, grey squirrels are said to be: a ruinous blight, a big, brash invasive species, invaders, pests; they carry a deadly virus, advance relentlessly, are on the march, wreak havoc; no tree is safe from them and they lead a destructive reign; as opposed to red squirrels which are said to cling on for survival, needing to be saved and should allowed to thrive again. 

Opponents of gene drive also stress that red squirrels are intelligent, sensitive beings. The scientists involved stress, by contrast, that gene drives allow local communities to humanely control pests. 

What about the cloning connection? Most articles mention this at the beginning and/or in the headline but don’t make a lot of it. One article tries to project negative framing from one onto the other in the headline “First they cloned Dolly the sheep. Now they’re targeting grey squirrels” (The Sunday Times). 

Responsibility and community 

In contrast with the newspaper reporting, the Roslin scientists not only avoided gory metaphors, they also wrote about the risks of their work and the need for community engagement, saying:  

“Although gene drive technology still faces significant scientific, political and social hurdles, we are optimistic of its future potential and as such have chosen to highlight prospective applications of the technology in this article. However, it must be noted that before any of these proposed applications are deployed there is a requirement for in-depth analysis of the ecological implications, as well as the need for broad community engagement with those that may be affected by the release of a gene drive.” 

This was, strangely, not picked up in the articles, despite being a major topic in previous reporting on gene drive in mosquitoes, for example (a topic we are just exploring). 

Future research

In ongoing research, focusing mainly on mosquitoes not mammals, we investigate whether this pattern, of journalists using war metaphors and war narratives and scientists focusing on responsibility and ethics, holds up in a larger corpus, and if so why. 

Image: Photo of greeting card – Quilled Squirrel by Quilling Card, handcrafted in Vietnam


PS: Added 8 November, 2022 – Sarah Hartley has now produced film on the gene drive and grey squirrel issue – you can read more here


Posted in biotechnologygene driveMetaphorsScience Communication