Researchers discover natural toxin fatal to invasive mussels

Muskegon County

MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — Researchers at Wayne State University believe they may have found a way to stop invasive species of mussels from spreading throughout the Great Lakes by using algae.

Scientists in West Michigan aren’t ready to call the discovery a solution just yet, citing a lack of field tests and a prohibitively expensive price tag.

“It’s research, it’s a discovery, and now the application takes time,” Director of the Grand Valley State University Anis Water Resources Institute Alan Steinman explains. “It’s a very interesting finding, because we did not know this until now and so, I give a lot of credit to Wayne State for finding this. But how it can be eventually scaled up and be applied to natural systems, we’re a long way from that.”

The find, a toxin released by dying algae called Microcystin LR, which when placed in direct contact with juvenile mussels can be fatal.

Algal blooms which commonly flourish in the Great Lakes every summer are filled with toxins. Microcystin LR is the most common and also the most toxic, however some researchers don’t believe the application is practical.

“These studies were done in controlled environments, right, in a lab, and they took these juvenile zebra and quagga mussels and introduced this toxin directly to them,” Steinman said. “I don’t think anybody is going to suggest that we apply this toxin, broadly and at a high enough concentration to kill the mussels in any natural water body. That just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Scientists remain optimistic over the find as the invaders had been largely left unchecked since their introduction to the Great Lakes through ballast water in the 1980’s.

“The only other way we can fight off the mussels is by using a product called Zequanox,” Steinman explains. “It’s expensive, can’t cover large areas and must be ingested by adult mussels. It really is only good for spot treatments.”

The reason scientists are so eager to rid the lakes of the mussels is the problems they cause native species like the Lake Trout and Lake Whitefish. 

“Because the mussels are filter feeders, they’re literally sucking the bioenergetic life out of Lake Michigan,” Steinman says. “The native species have less to eat so we start seeing this ramify effect on the food web. People must realize the ecology of the Great Lakes are heavily managed. It’s a totally artificial system, compared to what it was historically. But that’s just a function of the invasive species coming in over time. 

More than likely Steinman believes the real solution to the problems caused by the aquatic invaders, is patience. 

“We’re just going to have to go through a natural cycle. Eventually, the mussels will run out of calcium, sufficient calcium in Lake Michigan to grow new shells,” Steinman explains. “They’ve been growing exponentially. It’ll crash, eventually.”

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