Dated lab calls for renewal

At a University invasive species research center, current resources have limited research and worried researchers.

Becca Nash, Associate Director for the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center, examines the different varieties of carp studied at the Aquatic Invasive Species Research Lab on Thursday.

Image by Lisa Persson

Becca Nash, Associate Director for the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center, examines the different varieties of carp studied at the Aquatic Invasive Species Research Lab on Thursday.

by Vanessa Nyarko

The building housing the University of Minnesota’s Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center was originally built in 1911 as a farmhouse equipment repair shop.

In the 1990s, it was renovated to study aquaculture and genetically modified fish. And now, some say it’s in desperate need of another upgrade.

The water filtration system is falling apart, the thermostat needles no longer work, the water supply system is unreliable and there are no backup alarms to monitor animal life support, said Becca Nash, associate director of the MAISRC.

All of these structural failures severely limit research options, and the MAISRC is hoping to get $6 million in the University’s higher education bonding bill request to fund an upgrade.

The center studies invasive species, non-native species to the region that generally damage the ecosystem. But because of the facility’s limitations, the center can only study juvenile Asian carp and common carp.

The center must ensure that none of the invasive species escape back to the main waterways. It doesn’t keep species that can reproduce, because their eggs or larvae could get past the center’s less-than-desirable filter system.

Researchers have bought screens from Home Depot to make alternate filters to ensure that nothing escapes.

With these limitations, the center can’t study adult Asian carp, plants, zebra mussels and diseases that may be used to kill invasive species, Nash said.

Researchers also worry about their water supply. City water is poisonous to the fish supported at the center, so staff members use filtered and treated well-water. The well is supposed to produce 200 gallons per minute but is only producing eight, Nash said.

Center workers are terrified that the well will fail at any minute and ruin years of research, Nash said. The lab recently got separate funding for a new well, and the bonding bill funding would fix the center’s internal plumbing.

“It’s a good foundation for a lab as it is, but it just needs to be brought [into] the 21st century,” Nash said.

In recent years, invasive species have become a major issue for the state, leading to public and legislative interest.

Asian carp have invaded waterways, and zebra mussels have set up residence in about 30 lakes in Minnesota, including Lake Minnetonka and Mille Lacs Lake, said Michael McCartney, a research assistant professor who hopes to study zebra mussels at the center.

In addition to scrambling the ecosystem, zebra mussels latch onto water treatment plants, grow and clog the pipes. For now, they can’t be housed at the center because they reproduce and could get through the filter system. But McCartney is planning to work on ways to detect the zebra mussels when they first get to Minnesota waters.

Peter Sorensen, the scientific director of the MAISRC, has conducted breakthrough research on common carp, drawing attention from the University and state.

Funding from the state Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund and the federal Clean Water Fund created the MAISRC in 2012.

“Everyone thought [common carp] were stupid, simple fish, and they hated them, but no one thought about how they really work and why there were so
many,” Sorensen said.

After receiving the grant, the dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and other administrators noticed Sorensen’s research on invasive species and met with him in the beat-up facilities. Realizing the facilities were inadequate for the type of research taking place, they took the concern to the University president’s office, Sorensen said.

He said necessary renovations would cost $14 million, and if the bonding bill passes, they would have about a third of it.

“With more, we could do a lot more,” he said, “but it would at least keep us operating at some level.”