Tracking Vampire Fish eDNA Could Protect Great Lakes' Ecosystem

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If you’ve ever stared into the gaping, spikey mouth of a lamprey, you’ve probably thought to yourself “I should really find better hobbies”, but also “what in God’s name am I looking at?!” These bizarre and terrifying jelly-like danger noodles occupy the Great Lakes of North America but in recent years have become a problem. Now, immune to the pesticides that once kept them at bay, lampreys are taking over the waterways but new research into their DNA hopes to end the vampire fish's reign of terror.

These bizarre fish attach to their prey using suction-cup mouths lined with sharp tooth-like projections. Once latched on, they drill a hole and begin sucking out blood and liquifying tissues while the poor subject of their attack is still alive. Though a grim behavior, it is perfectly natural for the carnivorous fish. However, the problem arises as their numbers expand beyond control. It's feared they could kill over 100 million pounds of Great Lakes fish if their population goes unchecked, a fact further compounded by the fact that lampreys have adapted to tolerate Lampricide, a treatment used to poison them.

Despite having no jaw, bones, or actual teeth, these slippery killers can take down prey up to 100 times their size (see above “jelly-like danger noodle”). As well as disrupting vital fisheries, they could disrupt the ecosystem by wiping out species from the top of the food chain down to the bottom. Not good.

In response to the swarm of killer lampreys, Biologist Nick Schloesser has turned to the lamprey’s DNA for a solution, specifically their eDNA, which is DNA left behind by living organisms in their environment. Before now, the only way lampreys could be tracked down was through expensive physical monitoring but Schloesser and his team found a way to effectively identify the lamprey’s eDNA (from within the cocktail of eDNAs drifting about in the lake water).

Using this invisible footprint means the team can carry out a much faster and widespread investigation of the animals’ movement and deploy chemical treatments or barrier dams to effectively keep the voracious predators away from their vulnerable prey. Fortunately, lampreys spawn in tributaries, a smaller stream that flows into a larger stream, sloughing away cells and eDNA and revealing their position to the researchers. By finding these spawning grounds, they can get to the lampreys before they become a problem, as at their larval stage they’re harmless filter feeders but later expand to 40 to 50 times their original size and develop a taste for blood and carnage.

It’s hoped that future means of lamprey control could go beyond using their eDNA to track them and instead hack their DNA to sterilize the predatory animals. The technology for this kind of gene hacking for lampreys doesn’t exist yet and if Jurassic World is anything to go by its better to practice patience before accidentally cooking up an Indominus lamprey.


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