Researchers sequence mussel DNA

By tracing the invasive species’ genome, researchers could prevent its spread.

by Ryan Faircloth

A group of University of Minnesota researchers are the first in the world to attempt to map the genome of the zebra mussel in order to try and control the species’ spread.
Scientists at the University’s Genomics Center, the Mayo Clinic and the University’s Informatics Institute hope to complete the construction of a draft DNA sequence by the end of the year and have it analyzed by next year, though it’ll take more funding and input from other agencies to apply their findings to control efforts.
Zebra mussels are invasive to Minnesota lakes, and they can cause other freshwater species to die out, said Michael McCartney, an aquatic invasive species research assistant professor and the project’s lead.
“In Minnesota, the main problem stems from the invasion of the zebra mussels into the inland lakes,” McCartney said. “When Mussels start to get abundant, they will be on beachfront property or right off docks. They have sharp shells that can cut people’s feet.”
Because the mollusk disrupts the food chain and human life, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is looking for a way to eliminate them, invasive species program supervisor Heidi Wolf said. 
By mapping out the zebra mussel’s genetic sequence, researchers will be able to determine where each genetically distinct zebra mussel travels in Minnesota lakes, McCartney said. 
Once the team determines where the zebra mussels live, they’ll be able to track new invasions, which will help create methods to prevent their spread, he said.
The cost of the genome sequencing project totals $25,000, McCartney said. But going forward, researchers would need more funding to analyze the zebra mussel’s movement.
Leaders in the field, like Becca Nash, associate director of the University’s Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center, hope the research will lead to further investigation into prevention and control methods.
“Not only will sequencing the genome provide the information for this specific study, but it will create this data that can be used for a whole host of other research on zebra mussels, not just about pathways, but hopefully, eventually, potentially about how to control zebra mussels,” Nash said.
But taking those extra steps will mean collaborating with researchers nationwide and applying for more funding, McCartney said.
Once the draft genome has been mapped and analyzed, the data will be made public, Nash said, allowing researchers from universities across the country to study potential ways to stop the mussel’s spread.
Finding new ways to control the mollusk could change the DNR’s management methods, Wolf said, which currently consist of informing the general public of the spread and asking them to exercise caution.