Team tests eDNA tracker at Whitefish Lake

October 3, 2018

The team from the Flathead Lake Biological Station responsible for the development of the first portable eDNA Tracker conducted its first field test last week at Whitefish City Beach, where the crew practiced implementing the technology at a boat-inspection station.

According to Shawn Devlin, assistant research professor and aquatic ecologist for the biological station, he, Cody Youngbull, a physicist at the station and the lead scientist behind the device, and their team were able to collect samples from around a half-dozen boats as inspectors conducted routine interviews prior to launch.

“This is the first time ever that continuous flow digital droplet PCR was used to detect and quantify aquatic mussel DNA at inspection stations,” Devlin said. “The exercise wasn’t to detect mussels, but to see if the technology could lend itself to that application and to see how well it fit in.”

And, Devlin said, it worked like clockwork.

A breakthrough invention in DNA detection, the tracker works by comparing water samples taken from the lake or a boat and testing them for minute traces of specific types of DNA, in this case invasive zebra and Quagga mussels.

The device also proves more effective as an early warning system for a potential invasion because it is sensitive enough to pick up the presence of eDNA, or pieces of DNA strands, without anyone ever having to see a mussel.

Youngbull said in a previous interview that once a mussel has been found, it’s usually too late to stop an invasion. A positive detection by the eDNA tracker, however, has the potential to raise red flags before mussels can become established.

The device’s portability, another breakthrough feature, allows the user to test samples immediately onsite rather than rushing them back to a lab.

According to Devlin, the team managed to collect samples from each boat in under two minutes, finishing up by the time the boat was ready to roll out and hit the lake.

The machine, he said, also worked flawlessly, and the team had results back within an hour.

“We definitely found out that the whole in-line process of testing boats as they’re inspected is viable and doesn’t get in the way,” Devlin said. “The application was pretty seamless.”

Though the team saw no indication of mussel presence, Devlin said they did see a future for the device as part of the inspection process.

“It felt good. It felt like we were making progress,” Devlin said.

The team hopes to continue working with the community to analyze other locations and ways to test and utilize the tracker this year.

Next summer, they hope to return to inspection stations on busier days to see how well sampling goes under shorter time constraints and greater pressure from boaters eager to enjoy their day on the water.

“We don’t have any plans to implement it for an entire season or for the state to latch on to this technology within the next year or anything,” Devlin said. “We just want to get more data on how it works and get the technology and start making a difference.”

He encouraged any private citizens, public or private marinas or others interested and open to allowing the team to use the device to test their boats to contact him or Youngbull.

They’re primary interest right now, he said, is in learning all they can about how to implement the technology and see how all it can be used to protect the lake.

For more information or to schedule a DNA Tracker test, contact Devlin at 872-4509 or Youngbull at 872-4533.

Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or mtaylor@dailyinterlake.com.

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