Maine-eDNA Students Make Headway on Sampling Index Sites Over the Summer

By Attis Bielecki, ME EPSCoR Student Writer

EPSCoR’s Maine-eDNA program acts as a hub of research that is searching for the uses and limitations of environmental DNA (eDNA). Many graduate students are conducting research on this program; Sharon Mann from the Ecology and Environmental Science department and Emily Pierce from the Marine Science department are two such students. One of the cornerstones of the overall program is the samples collected from locations across the state of Maine.

According to Mann, “One of the main objectives of the Maine-eDNA program is to obtain and organize this comprehensive data set, and one of the only ways to do this is to spread out across the state and collect water samples for eDNA. That’s the purpose of the index site sampling.”

Index sites are the various locations throughout Maine where researchers, graduate students, and undergraduate students alike are deployed to collect samples that contain cellular material shed by organisms within an environment, which is also known as eDNA.

“A lot of these index sites are sort of an anchor for everyone’s research under the Maine-eDNA program,” Research Organizer Lauren Crofton-Macdonald explained. “These sites are spread out along the coast of Maine with the purpose of collecting a standardized set of data which other researchers can potentially harvest to round out the data they’re collecting.”

The index sites are one of the primary focuses of Crofton-Macdonald’s research. There are over 20 index sites where samples are collected across Maine, covering places such as Casco Bay, Machias, and the Penobscot area.

Photo of two students conducting sampling on dock.

“In these areas the sampling happens once a month from May to October,” Crofton-Macdonald stated. As a co-PI, senior researcher, and faculty member, Kate Beard explained there are major “themes” to the Maine-eDNA program. A theme is a division of the program that covers certain subjects relating to the use of eDNA that major research projects would fall under. All three themes within the program utilize the index sites.

Theme 1 encompasses fisheries and environment restoration. Within this theme, work includes alewife restoration as well as understanding larval blackbox. Beard clarified, “With the larval blackbox, researchers are looking into the larval production and population growth for the newer generations of lobster, as well as scallops, and seeing if this is possible with the use of eDNA collected from coastal index sites.”

Theme 2 is divided into two parts. The first is looking at harmful algae species in both fresh and coastal water. This part of the theme uses eDNA to identify the specific species that are causing the bloom and determining if they are toxic or not. The second part of theme two is looking into changes in the kelp beds along the Gulf of Maine. This primarily uses eDNA along with traditional diving methods to track the change in species, which is taking a northward shift due to climate change.

Theme 3 covers macrosystems integration which involves observing every aspect of the Gulf of Maine. This involves two other facets, including using eDNA to track microorganisms and use them as sensors to predict sudden environment changes. The other piece is about the social science side of the whole program and how people from different disciplines are interacting with each other within the Maine-eDNA program.

To ensure useful data is generated within these themes, eDNA collected from these index sites are utilized in a wide variety of research.

Index sites are also a core benefit for graduate students like Mann and Pierce, with their research being supported by the eDNA gathered through this process. For example, Pierce, who heavily researches invasive invertebrates, is able to utilize the standardized data to see if identifying the quantity of certain invasive species is possible.

“The graduate students are ‘regional leaders’ over the undergraduates, and what we do here allows these undergraduates to build experience through real world application,” Crofton-Macdonald said. “Undergraduates are also very helpful. It would be a lot to put all this sample collecting on the graduate students who also have their own research to conduct, so it helps divide the work while providing experience for undergraduates.”

From the undergraduates’ perspective this is also a huge benefit. They learn how to properly collect water samples (to avoid contamination) that are in line with Maine-eDNA standards. They are also learning how to use specialized equipment that collects environmental data besides the sample, such as water temperature or water turbidity.

Apart from giving them experience, index site sampling also provides undergraduates with the opportunity to build connections with other researchers, and possible future colleagues. Therefore, a lot of undergraduates see it as building bridges in their careers.

As one Maine-eDNA undergraduate student and nutrition major, Benjamin Rico, explained, “The connections I make through this program and the experience gained through the index sites will be very nice to have, and it definitely leaves the door open for me with marine biology.”

The importance of these index sites is without question. It can vary as to how important it could be to a student’s work, as some may just use it as background information. But it is also critical to many of Maine-eDNA personnel’s research that utilizes it in a centralized capacity. Everyone’s research is improved and supplemented by these index sites, which help connect and contextualize the entire Maine-eDNA program.