Asian Carp and eDNA

In 2009 a team of scientists from the University of Notre Dame and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) discovered that two species of highly invasive Asian Carp were much closer to the Great Lakes than federal and state officials had realized. Those two species, bighead carp and silver carp, have already done extensive environmental damage to the Illinois River—and much of the Mississippi River—by completely altering the food web in sections of those two major watersheds. There has been enormous concern throughout the region that if Asian carp entered the Great Lakes they could severely impair the lakes’ $7 billion annual sport and commercial fishing industries.

Scientists from Notre Dame and The Nature Conservancy located the Asian carp invasion through a cutting-edge technique called “environmental DNA” or “eDNA.” From the summer of 2009 through May of 2010, those scientists collected and analyzed more than 1,000 two-liter water samples from the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal, as well as other water bodies in the Chicago metropolitan area. Then, using a combination of high-tech genetic tools, they sifted those samples to find traces of eDNA from all sorts of species, including Asian carp.

In addition to showing that the invasive fish were much closer to the Great Lakes than people believed, the research showed that eDNA is superior to traditional methods for locating and monitoring aquatic species invasions. While so far the eDNA technology has only been used on alien species like Asian carp, Notre Dame’s scientists believe that the eDNA methodology has strong promise in endangered species detection and monitoring as well. The scientists’ work has now been expanded to a search for Asian carp eDNA throughout large swaths of the Great Lakes watershed.

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Research for a sustainable future

May 04, 2015 • Author: Dana Bakirtjy, ND Works • Categories: Asian Carp and eDNA , Land Use and Water Quality, ND-LEEF, and Transportation Networks, Climate Change, and the Spread of Invasive Species

Sustainability is often thought about strictly as an environmental issue: recycling, limiting emissions or protecting wildlife. But sustainability is more than just planting trees and driving hybrid cars. More than 140 faculty members in 36 University departments are currently conducting sustainability research on topics ranging from corporate social responsibility to the use of quantum dots in solar cells.

Jennifer Tank, biology

            Invasive species and access to fresh water are both environmental, economic and personal challenges to people across the world and in our own backyards, says Jennifer Tank, interim director of the Environmental Change Initiative, director of ND-LEEF (the Notre Dame Linked Experimental Ecosystem Facility), and Galla Professor of Biological Sciences. Tank hopes that her research at ND-LEEF, located in northwestern St. Joseph County at St. Patrick’s County Park, can be a piece of the puzzle to solving these problems.

            Through a collaboration with Notre Dame hydrologists, Tank’s first project aims to understand how the size of the substrate on the bottom of a stream affects the biology of that stream. “Since streams influenced by agriculture or urban impacts often are filled with very fine sediments, we’re interested in seeing if coarsening the substrates will help restore damaged streams to their original function,” she says.


Preventing Invasive Species in Streams and Rivers with eDNA

April 10, 2015 • Author: Jennifer Tank, University of Notre Dame • Categories: Asian Carp and eDNA , ND-LEEF, and Transportation Networks, Climate Change, and the Spread of Invasive Species

Each year, aquatic invasive species cost the United States economy billions of dollars. It is imperative to quickly identify new invasions and respond accordingly. In 2034, the threat from invasive species will be greater than today due to increasing domestic and international trade. This will be a significant concern since the arrival and establishment of invasive species can compromise ecosystem structure and function.


Detecting the presence of a few individual organisms that make up an invasion front, which are often small and cryptic, can be very difficult, especially in flowing waters like streams and rivers. In 2034, natural resource managers will be able to use field-ready detection techniques, allowing them to track the presence of the first few organisms beginning an invasion in real-time and quickly eradicate them. Rather than relying on visual identification, as we do now, in 2034 we will use a new set of tools and methods to isolate and identify trace amounts of DNA that are constantly shed by aquatic organisms into their environment. We call this “environmental DNA” (eDNA), and real-time detection techniques are on the near horizon. 

The detection of eDNA in aquatic systems, especially streams and rivers, is relatively new and questions remain about the simultaneous transport and environmental degradation of eDNA in flowing waters. Currently, a positive “hit” in a water sample, suggesting the presence of eDNA in a river, could indicate the incidence of a target invasive species nearby; alternatively, flowing water could have carried this eDNA from a considerable distance upstream. Thus, water sampling for invasive eDNA in flowing waters is not very reliable at this time.

Notre Dame on front lines in war against Asian carp: eDNA is forensic detective work involving fish genetics

March 08, 2015 • Author: Tom Henry, The Blade • Categories: Asian Carp and eDNA


SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Twenty years ago, Asian carp imported by Southern fish farms began their high-profile journey along the mighty Mississippi River toward southern Lake Michigan in Chicago, their most probable entry point into the Great Lakes.

Now, some of the most important research to help fend them off is being generated inside the University of Notre Dame’s Galvin Life Sciences Center, barely more than a Hail Mary pass from the school’s iconic football stadium.

The relatively nondescript academic hall is home to Notre Dame’s department of biological sciences — but also some of the Great Lakes region’s top science nerds, who have used laboratories there since 2009 to invent and improve upon a cutting-edge research technique that is quickly becoming one of the most powerful tools for detecting microscopic bits and pieces of fish, plants, aquatic insects, and other organisms in our waterways.

Called eDNA, for environmental DNA, the process developed six years ago was as much of a watershed moment in the ongoing battle against fugitive fish as the great Mississippi River floods of 1995 that made water levels so high that Asian carp escaped from Southern fish hatcheries that had imported them to eat pond scum.

Think of it as forensic detective work involving fish genetics.

Asian carp pose one of the worst threats ever to the Great Lakes region’s $7 billion recreational and commercial fishing industries, the backbone of thousands of jobs and a lake-based tourism industry worth about $12 billion a year in Ohio alone.

A game changer

Scientists have long characterized and assessed what’s on land, mostly from what they find in animal feces.

But until eDNA was developed, that wasn’t being done at the microscopic level in the water column. Such material is typically fish scales, cells, feces, or mucus found in the top 2 inches of the water column.

Under the direction of David Lodge, director of the Notre Dame Environmental Change Initiative, researchers in 2009 developed eDNA for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The agency requested it to help hunt for any Asian carp evidence near Chicago — apparently not realizing at the time how eDNA was going to become a game-changer.

When the corps got an unexpected result — Asian carp DNA beyond Chicago-area electrical barriers the government operates to keep invasive fish out of Lake Michigan — Mr. Lodge was ordered to defend the process in court.

The eDNA method of detecting genetic material was ruled scientifically accurate, despite the corps’ challenge. It was peer-reviewed and published in Conservation Letters, the flagship academic journal of the Society for Conservation Biology, and was vetted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In subsequent years, U.S. Fish and Wildlife scientists — using Notre Dame’s eDNA technique — have found Asian carp eDNA in many more Chicago-area water samples, as well as many drawn from western Lake Erie and other parts of the Great Lakes region — including the Maumee River in downtown Toledo.


January 09, 2015 • Author: Alex Gumm • Categories: Asian Carp and eDNA

At least one postdoctoral research position is available to pursue collaborative projects in conservation biology that would inform the management and policy of aquatic invasive species. The postdoctoral fellow(s) would join an interdisciplinary team of researchers, contribute to multiple projects, and would lead one or more subprojects involving: characterization of aquatic (freshwater and marine) communities with eDNA; quantitative analysis to forecast species dispersal and range changes caused by shipping and other vectors, and their interaction with other anthropogenic drivers (e.g., climate change); quantification of the ecological and economic impacts of invasions; and management and policy of invasive species at regional or global scales. Intellectual leadership would be expected, with the choice of topic(s) depending on experience and interests. Opportunities for collaborations exist with computer scientists, economists, and policy experts. The postdoc(s) would also assist with the organization and administration of projects, and contribute to on-going publication preparation. Funding is available for at least two years. Applicant screening is rolling; the desired start date is as soon as possible during spring 2015. Salary and benefits will be competitive. The postdoc would be supervised by David Lodge

Study shows Asian carp could establish in Lake Erie with little effect to fishery

August 07, 2014 • Author: William G. Gilroy • Categories: Asian Carp and eDNA

common carp

If bighead and silver carp were to establish in Lake Erie, local fish biomass is not likely to change beyond observations recorded in the last three decades, according to a study published in the journal Conservation Biology on Thursday (Aug. 6) by a group of scientists from the University of Notre Dame, Resources for the Future, U.S. Forest Service, University of Michigan and the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Laboratory.

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