U lab fights spread of invasive species

A renovated lab will help contain certain invasive species for preemptive testing.

by Keaton Schmitt

Minnesota has a new tool to fight invasive lake and river species. 
The University of Minnesota’s Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center reopened last week after extensive renovation and is now equipped to study a wider range of damaging invasive species.
Before reopening, the lab’s facilities were in disrepair and didn’t allow for many types of research, said Sue Galatowitsch, the center’s director.
The new construction started last spring, but plans for the update began in 2013.
“We couldn’t really handle having invasive species in this lab,” Galatowitsch said. “It was antiquated and did not allow us to do the … research that the state really needs.”
The renovations included new systems to manage effluent — water leaving the lab — to ensure it was free of specimens that could spread to surrounding lakes or rivers, said Dan Larkin, an MAISRC researcher. 
Containing specimens without risk lets researchers experiment on species not yet found in Minnesota, but that could pose a risk in the future, he said.
“This facility is really unique in terms of the quality of its containment,” Larkin said. “Facilities like this where you have that quality of control are rare.”
Species that have yet to reach Minnesota can be tested in the lab to see if they can handle Minnesota’s climate. If they are a threat, researchers can test which methods are best at stopping them, said Larkin.
Nick Phelps, a researcher at the center, said the lab lets him run experiments on pathogens carried by invasive species to see if they could harm local wildlife without fear that the pathogen might actually be released into the wild.
“This lab is going to be a game changer. We didn’t have anything like this in the state of Minnesota before,” he said.
Now the lab is able to contain harmful pathogens, Phelps said. He will study one that liquefies infected fish muscle tissue, killing the host.
“[Previously], the waste water here would go out, and who knows where or how that would contaminate natural systems,” he said.
Phelps also said the variety of experiment types working together in the lab allows for collaborative research that would have previously been impossible.
The lab is open as a resource for researchers from across Minnesota, Galatowitsch said, adding that this should let researchers statewide tackle larger questions by grouping experts in every part of the field in the same building.
Without this in-depth research, Minnesota’s waters are at risk of being unsafe for recreation use, she said.
“[The spread of invasive plants] affects boating and makes swimming much more dangerous,” Galatowitsch said. “Some other species can wound people, depending on the species.”