Meet Maine-eDNA: Brian Tarbox, Researcher

Southern Maine Community College Professor, Brian Tarbox, is doing research on Harfmul Algal Blooms as part of the Maine-eDNA program.

Associate Professor, Brian Tarbox, has been teaching in the Marine Science program at Southern Maine Community College since the 1990s. Tarbox has a unique professional background, which includes a Master’s degree in fisheries from the University of Maine, and past work experience in the aquaculture and fisheries industries, as well as experience with commercial diving and underwater videography.

This background gives Tarbox a full picture of how Maine’s marine-based industries impact the state and those who inhabit it, as well as how the state and its inhabitants are impacted by other factors, such as harmful algal blooms (or HABs). These occur when algae colonies grow out of control. Sometimes, these blooms can have toxic or harmful effects on fish, shellfish, marine mammals, birds, and even humans. While illnesses caused by HABs are rare, they can be debilitating or even fatal. That’s why Tarbox’s current research, which he is doing as a part of Maine EPSCoR’s current Track-1 grant, Maine-eDNA, is based on better detecting HABs found in Maine’s waters.

“Working with HABs, there are specific species we’re particularly concerned about,” explains Tarbox. “Alexandrium, for example, is associated with red tides, which have caused significant issues for Maine fisheries in the past.”

According to Tarbox, there are actually six algal species in Maine that are known to cause red tides. One in particular, Pseudo nitzschia australis, is sometimes known to produce a neuro toxin. The question becomes, when and why?

However, it is difficult to even identify these various species. Tarbox’s project aims to develop qPCR assays that can eventually provide real-time detection abilities, thanks to the eDNA research methods being utilized and developed through Maine-eDNA research.

“We’re particularly interested in Pseudo nitzschia,” says Tarbox. “It was associated with a domoic acid event about two years ago. By the time the Department of Marine Resources identified the problem, they had to recall a lot of shellfish product.”

These red tide outbreaks have an especially big impact on shellfish industries. An early warning system would really help with monitoring for at-risk aquaculture sites, and help with Maine’s Department of Marine Resources’ detection efforts.

Tarbox says that the next step in the project will involve teaming up with a local aquaculture farm in order to monitor their sites. Over the summer 2020 field season, Tarbox has mentored students through the sampling and lab processes. While they’ve had to work safely, with limited numbers allowed on boats or in labs, their research has forged on.

Those working closely with Tarbox on HABs research include fellow Maine-eDNA researcher, Pete Countway, and fellow SMCC professor, Carol White.