Developing and testing a new molecular assay for early detection of zebra mussel veligers

Containment and control of zebra mussels requires better tools to detect zebra mussels in the first place. We have developed a new, rapid molecular assay for the early detection and quantification of zebra and quagga mussel larvae. Field-sampled comparisons to controls are now being conducted to verify its quantitative performance. This will be a reliable, sensitive, and rapid molecular alternative to the microscopy assay which is presently used as a standard method. Once automated, this assay will be a very rapid way to screen water bodies for early detection.


We have developed an excellent early detection molecular assay for detecting and quantifying zebra and quagga mussel DNA in environmental mixtures of the two species. At present, the assay is applicable to plankton tows containing veliger larvae, but it could be easily modified for midwater or lake-bottom samples as a more conventional “eDNA” assay. It is a highly sensitive test, which is both a blessing and a curse since the usual issues with interpretation will face field applications for first detection, and it is highly specific which is a great advantage. The greatest contribution of this test is the simultaneous detection of both species, present together in the same water samples, since as stated above there is at present no convenient, reliable method for separately quantifying larvae from quagga and zebra mussels in mixtures (i.e. their larval morphologies are indistinguishable). Recently we showed that there is no apparent bias in estimating the relative abundance of DNA from both species, and we showed that the assay reliably quantifies veligers, even in tow samples that are filled with DNA from other species of planktonic animals. Because several water bodies have both species; quagga reproduction in Minnesota is unknown; adults in the upper Mississippi River in Minnesota are scattered but in fairly high numbers (in important potential source locations like Lake Pepin); and more broadly since quaggas have replaced zebra mussels in the lower Great Lakes, further application of the assay to estimate reproductive output of the invader — still on the horizon for Minnesota — would be worth the effort.

Project manager: Mike McCartney

Funded by: Clean Water Fund

Project state date: 2013

Project end date: 2016

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