Expanding Research Capacity in the State of Maine

by Liz Theriault, Maine EPSCoR Student Writer

MAINE EPSCOR’S NEWEST TRACK-1 GRANT, titled Molecule to Ecosystem: Environmental DNA as a Nexus for Coastal Ecosystem Sustainability for Maine (Maine-eDNA), is bringing environmental DNA research to the Pine Tree State, and positioning Maine as a national leader for understanding eDNA.

As a part of the program’s funding, the University of Maine’s new eDNA core facility (managed by MaineeDNA participant Geneva York) received two new pieces of technology in the spring to advance eDNA research. The new machines specialize in analyzing larger than normal samples of water and identifying hundreds or even thousands of different species by sequencing their DNA. One of the machines, a Digital Droplet PCR, allows researchers to test for specific DNA strands and produce extremely accurate counts of a target species within a body of water.

“We are on target for substantial research expansion with the new equipment we purchased through the MaineeDNA grant, as well as leveraging funds from the grant to increase expertise and capacity for eDNA research in the state of Maine,” said York.

The core facility is key for eDNA research, but also provides a public service accessible to NGOs, conservation organizations, or even concerned citizens. Organizations send water samples to the lab, where the new technologies, combined with York’s expertise, provide key understandings. York is currently working on 11 different collaborations with organizations around the state and across the nation.

For example, the Maine Department of Transportation (DOT) asked York and the core facility to use eDNA to identify key passages for Atlantic salmon, so they can make informed decisions about where they can build roads and culverts and avoid damaging migration routes of the salmon.

“We work with a lot of groups that are concerned with the conservation of rare species or the detection of invasive species,” said York. “The eDNA techniques we utilize are not invasive, so we can detect animals without actually interfering with their normal activity and without damaging them.”

The new eDNA core facility at UMaine positions the university and the state to become national leaders in eDNA technology. The collaborations that York has fostered in such a short period of time point to the rapidly expanding needs for eDNA services in conservation and development efforts.

“If we can become a leader in this technology, that will bring in a lot more research to the state and move a lot of conservation forward,” said York. “We want to make [the eDNA technology] more accessible so that more people will understand its utility and trust its results.”