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Researchers Hope To Stop Invasive Zebra Mussels Through Genetic Controls

a cluster of zebra mussels
D. Jude, Univ. of Michigan/D. Jude/Wikimedia Commons (CC0)
A cluster of zebra mussels.

From Texas Standard:

Last week, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department announced that yet another body of water in Texas had become infested with zebra mussels. This time it is Lake Worth – a busy, suburban lake northwest of Fort Worth.

Zebra mussels are tiny invasive mollusks that cluster together and damage underwater infrastructure like pipes, docks and boat motors. They’ve spread to 34 lakes across the state, and show no signs of slowing. Boaters unwittingly move them around by not properly cleaning the outside of their boats, where mussel larvae like to cling.

When a lake becomes infested with zebra mussels, there's no getting them out. Available control methods at the moment usually require poisons such as copper sulfate, which would harm other plants and animals in the water.

Researchers like Scott Ballantyne, however, are working on a solution. It’s based on RNA interference – a technique that allows scientists to “turn off” a targeted gene in a given organism.

Ballantyne is a professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. There’s a long way to go before RNA interference can be used to eliminate zebra mussels in the wild. But Ballantyne hopes to eventually bait them into eating bacteria laced with material that would turn off a specific gene in future generations of mussels. The targeted gene would account for a trait that helps the mussel survive and reproduce.

“That’s the beauty of doing a gene-specific approach,” Ballantyne said. “We can identify a secret that’s only found in zebra mussels and not found in any other living creature.”

There’s no timeline for deploying the technique with zebra mussels, according to Ballantyne. But RNA interference itself has been proven to work – the challenge is finding a way to apply it to a new species.

“It's a relatively old process that was discovered well over 20 years ago. And we're really just trying to apply this older procedure in this new setting of invasive species control,” said Ballantyne.