Researchers Using New eDNA Technology to Test Buffalo Waters for Damaging NY Invasive Species

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Can a quick test determine whether invasive species are hiding in the depths of Buffalo’s nearby lakes and rivers? Researchers from Central Michigan University are saying that their new “environmental DNA test” can determine whether species like the damaging Asian carp are present with a single, quick water test.

The three researchers collected dozens of two-liter water samples from various depths of Buffalo, NY’s outer harbor this past summer. Buffalo’s waters, especially the Erie Canal, have long been a thoroughfare for boats originating from the oceans and from other lakes and rivers — the hailed waterway connecting the east and west. As a result, though, there is the constant risk of boats and water transporting invasive species that could completely alter the biodiversity of valuable waterways in Western New York.

The relatively small samples of collected water are run through electronic processors at one of Central Michigan’s labs, which can indicate whether there are minute genetic markers present in the samples. A biological scrap of shed skin, for example, can show that a species is present somewhere in the waterways.

“Some people have called eDNA a ‘genetic smoke alarm,’” Andrew Tucker, the research team’s leader, said in an interview with the Buffalo News. “Like a smoke alarm, which alerts you to the presence of a fire, this eDNA alerts us to an aquatic invasive species.” Already, the eDNA tests have shown definitively what other surveys have hinted at — that several species of Asian carp are already establishing populations in the Great Lakes. As far as Tucker is aware, this is the first time eDNA technology has been used in the Erie Canal, or any of the nearby Buffalo waters.

The researchers have labeled 42 plant and aquatic invasive species as “high risk” lifeforms that could potentially thrive in the Great Lakes system, and these are the species they are trying to test for. Although the Asian carp receives a lot of press, there are several other species of aggressive predators and plants that are capable of causing a complete shift in valuable lake and river ecosystems.

The hydrilla plant, originally from Asia, for example, is already present in the Erie Canal, and is moving toward the Niagara River — a move researchers and the government alike are hoping to thwart. Its aggressive growth pushes out other plant life, clogs water plant intakes, and makes waters inhabitable to many native fish species; consequently, it has been called the “worst aquatic weed” in the U.S. by the Missouri Department of Conservation.

What happens when these species are allowed to thrive? Other species become endangered, overall biodiversity is lost, and economically valuable activities like fishing and boating are often negatively impacted as a result. Worldwide, invasive species account for a 5% loss in production each year — which translates into billions of dollars. For this reason, researchers believe that early detection is key — as are important preventative measures. Boaters in New York state are now being asked by the Department of Environmental Conservation to clean and drain their boats and canoes before entering the water so that they do not contribute to the spread of invasive species like hydrilla, Asian carp and zebra mussels.

Zebra mussels, a well-known invasive nuisance in the Northeast, arrived in the Hudson River in 1991. By 1992, they were a dominant species, constituting over 50% of the hetereotrophic biomass and having a lasting, negative impact on both the local ecosystem and the economy — they block pipes and attach to boats and buoys in enormous numbers. They have already cost the power industry alone more than $5 billion since the early 90s.

“Early detection is the gold standard,” Tucker says. Once they have identified the beginning presence of an invasive species, the Department of Environmental Conservation can be informed, and this paves the way for other environmental and government agencies to take action to control the species’ spread.