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zebra mussels

A boat carrying invasive zebra mussels was stopped at the Anaconda watercraft inspection station on April 20. The craft was being transported through Montana and no waterways were at risk.

A device built at the the University of Montana Flathead Lake Biological Station and developed by one of UM's researchers can detect the DNA of invasive mussels from water samples.

Tom Bansak, assistant director at the station, said the DNA Tracker represents a breakthrough in science in more than one way. It's small and affordable, he said, some $50,000 and the size of a small suitcase, compared to $250,000 and the heft of a chest freezer for a more traditional tracker.

"This is a new technology and a new tool in the toolbox in the fight against invasive mussels," Bansak said Tuesday. He also said it's an example of the contribution science makes to people's lives. "Research can be esoteric, but this is an example of how research has real practical benefits to society."

UM noted research Professor Cody Youngbull invented the device.

A small tube in the device sucks up water samples, and the device breaks them up into tiny droplets, each less than one-billionth of a liter in size, according to an announcement this month from UM. Then, the DNA Tracker analyzes each droplet to see if it contains the targeted "eDNA," or environmental DNA, by comparing it to a template.

Invasive mussels spread quickly, clogging infrastructure and causing severe economic and ecological damage. Researchers note education and prevention are key to keeping mussels from spreading into the Flathead, Kootenai and Clark Fork river systems, which form the headwaters of the Columbia River and last river system in the country considered free of mussels.

The DNA Tracker can aid in detection because it increases the ability of scientists to check many locations in a single day with rapid results, Bansak said. He also said the device is still in "research and proof of concept stage."

"The goal would be for these to be used widely by management agencies, boat inspection stations, (and) hydro power is particularly interested," Bansak said.

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Tom Woolf, aquatic invasive species bureau chief with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the science has potential, but scientific methods still need to be standardized and questions answered before managers can incorporate such a gadget on the ground.

"It's a science that holds a heckuva lot of promise," Woolf said. "There's still some questions out there that need to be addressed before something like that can be integrated into operational programs."

The state agency created the Bureau of Aquatic Invasive Species last year to prevent, detect and control the pests. Woolf said one of the issues those working on the problem need to deal with is how to talk about environmental DNA findings in a way that is consistent and doesn't raise alarm unnecessarily.

For instance, he said the researchers using DNA detection may talk about a "positive" identification from a sample, but that may not mean the presence of an actual mussel. He said mussel DNA in a lake might come from a bird dropping, for instance.

"Just because you find mussel DNA in the water doesn't mean you have mussels there," Woolf said.

On the other hand, he said, a boat that has been decontaminated with hot water might still have mussel DNA. But he said the hot water bath would have destroyed the mussels — "We cook 'em" — so DNA finding would not indicate a risk.

He anticipates a report set to be released soon will help "move the ball forward to a greater acceptance of using eDNA." In the meantime, he said the biological station is moving science forward even if the device can't be widely used just yet.

"Their focus is research and pushing the science, and my focus is early detection and prevention in the world where 'positive' means something significant," Woolf said. "And we need to work closely together to bridge that research-operational gap so we can make these tools something that managers like myself can comfortably use."

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Bansak also said the device wasn't ready for "widespread deployment," but he also noted its significance beyond its relative affordability and portability as well as its potential for UM.

The device is an innovation in DNA detection, he said. Until now, such research has required scientists to first extract the DNA from a cell, a process that takes place in a lab and can take at least several hours, according to UM. But Bansak said this device worked with "raw, unprocessed water."

"Scientifically, that is groundbreaking," he said.

A number of patents have been granted and filed in connection with the technology, and Bansak said the hope is that the DNA Tracker will be a new revenue source for UM and the Flathead Lake Biological Station.

Mussels are a significant threat with major ecological and economic impacts, he said, and the worst enemy of the problem is the belief that the arrival of mussels is inevitable.

He said it isn't, and states such as Minnesota are examples of places that have actively and effectively educated the public about preventing the spread of mussels. Bansak said Montanans are working hard as well.

"There are a lot of well-meaning stakeholders, agencies, conservation groups, obviously the biostation, the tribes, who are working very hard to get the word out about the significance of this threat and doing early detection monitoring so if they do get here, the state can respond as rapidly as possible," Bansak said. 

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