Breaking Ground: How Maine-eDNA Research is Being Applied to Invasive Species

By Attis Bielecki, ME EPSCoR Student Writer

Emily Pierce is a University of Maine graduate student conducting research with Maine EPSCOR’s Maine-eDNA program. Her home department is Marine Science and her Advisor within the Maine-eDNA program is Dr. Markus Frederich, a Marine Science Professor at the University of New England. The work they do on the program focuses on the physiology of invertebrates and shows a lot of promise towards countering certain invasive species within Maine’s waters.

Pierce has always been passionate about marine life, and held a prime interest in mollusks specifically. She considers herself fortunate to be able to work with the Maine-eDNA program and focus directly on her interests while exploring other important research fields.

Pierce states “When this Ph.D opportunity came up to continue to work on invertebrates but broaden my horizons with some added physiology research, that drew my attention.”

This strong interest has been welcomed in the Maine-eDNA program, and she has found herself working hard by focusing on the eDNA samples of four certain invasive invertebrates. These include Botrylloides violaceus, Diplosoma listerianum, Ostrea edulis, and Palaemon elegans.

Keeping track of these species is important, not only because of the damage they can cause to the ecosystem, but also to fisheries.

“If we could use eDNA techniques to detect them before we can see them with our eyes, maybe we can have a better chance of protecting native species.” Pierce clarifies. “This could be more effective than sending a bunch of people out in the cold to try and get a rough estimate of how present they are in specific habitats.”

Pierce also believes that it may be harder to track certain invasive species through eDNA based on what the invertebrate looks like. For example, Ostrea edulis is a species of oyster with an obvious shell, and that might mean that it gives off less eDNA than Diplosoma listerianum, which is more of a gooey mass that doesn’t have a shell.

Pierce made it clear that while they have established specific hypotheses, this work is still in the beginning stages. It still needs to be clarified if these species can be kept alive in a lab effectively. However, there is a lot of hope that eDNA, when utilized, could make the process much more efficient. 

The research that Pierce is conducting also strives to maintain a respect towards other cultures. “Something that’s been really cool about coming to Maine is seeing the connection we have with Native Americans and the respect for their knowledge of nature. When we use eDNA techniques, we strive to make sure we’re not stepping on anyone’s toes with it.” She explains “It’s a combination of exploring all the techniques we can use but also being mindful of other cultures.”

This respect towards other cultures is just one of many things that proves this research important, especially in regard to working with eDNA.