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Colby College has partnered with other Maine scientific institutions to attract $20 million in research funding to use environmental DNA in the study of lake and ocean water. The National Science Foundation grant, through the EPSCoR program, funds Colby faculty to pursue cutting-edge research using environmental DNA (eDNA)—genetic material that organisms leave behind in the environment. The grant includes nine Maine science institutes, including the University of Maine, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, and Maine Maritime Academy. 

The NSF grant will allow Colby students to work with faculty, graduate students, and scientists to incorporate eDNA into their research, such as on Maine’s Belgrade Lakes, seen here.

“Colby scientists have long been involved in studying the lake and ocean waters of Maine from a variety of angles,” said Provost Margaret T. McFadden. “This important grant allows them to incorporate the study of environmental DNA into their research, doing work that will continue to include the deep involvement of Colby students.”

Environmental DNA allows scientists to acquire massive amounts of information about living organisms as small as bacteria and as big as a whale. The five-year Maine-eDNA initiative is expected to revolutionize the way coastal and inland ecosystems are understood and monitored, contributing to the sustainability of Maine’s aquatic life. 

Denise Bruesewitz, associate professor of environmental studies at Colby and a co-principal investigator in Maine-eDNA, and D. Whitney King, Colby’s Dr. Frank and Theodora Miselis Professor of Chemistry, have been studying how cyanobacterial blooms (the green scum that can form on lakes’ surface) occur on the Belgrade Lakes. “With the eDNA we’ll be able to use that technique to look for the signals of the cyanobacteria before we can see blooms form,” said Bruesewitz.

In addition to early detection, they will also investigate the toxicity of cyanobacteria, an area gaining more importance as the Environmental Protection Agency works to determine safe and unsafe levels of various cyanotoxins. 

Through the initiative, 15 to 20 students will work with Bruesewitz and King each year, learning how to use eDNA in their research. “It really represents a new technique or a new tool that our students can learn,” said Bruesewitz. In addition, students will engage with graduate students and scientists across the state, putting them in a unique place as Colby is one of the few primarily undergraduate institutions that is part of the grant. “It’s really providing an opportunity that looks like science at the graduate level—at the undergraduate level,” she said. 

Maine offers the opportune environment for field research and laboratory sciences at leading research institutions. From ocean sciences to data analytics and genomics, Colby students have numerous opportunities to pursue groundbreaking research through the Buck Lab for Climate and Environment and the Linde Packman Lab for Biosciences Innovation, and through Colby’s partner institutions, including Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, and The Jackson Laboratory. These research opportunities place Colby student researchers with some of the most preeminent scientists in the United States and beyond.