Zebra mussel invasion: how a local start-up is developing solutions

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — It doesn’t seem like the invasion of Zebra mussels is going away any time soon.

Thursday, after Austin Water found zebra mussels in one of its raw intake pipes, the company’s Assistant Director over Operations Rick Coronado said this is the new normal. 

According to Austin Water, the pipe is 72 inches in diameter and they found a 2-inch layer of Zebra mussels.

“There’s no great way right now,” said John Higley with Environment Quality Operations, or EQO, when asked about ways to get rid of Zebra mussels. “And down the road, we’re not really looking at silver bullets.”

EQO is a local start-up in Austin that offers early detection services, so any new infestation of Zebra mussels can be caught in the early, manageable stages. 

This week, they installed an automated detection system at Inks Lake.

Higley said, right now, the only effective way to control an infestation is to catch it early. “At Lake Waco, they did a great tarping program where they just suffocated them as soon as they found out they were in there.”

EQO is also working on a more long-term solution.

“We’re looking at genetic material, not just DNA but also RNA,” explained Higley. “We’re bioengineering a smart drug that’s going to be producing a microalgae. Then, that algae becomes fish food for everything else and Zebra mussels die off.” 

He said it’s a lot like the work he has done for cancer research. 

“What we would do is basically re-target things to attack just cancer cells,” Higley said. “You can re-train certain biological molecules to go after things they normally wouldn’t and leave everything else alone.”

Ultimately, what he hopes to develop is microalgae that contains the bioengineered drug. It would be safe for all other fish to eat, but would act as a poison pill for Zebra mussels. 

Higley’s confident this will be effective.

“How we know is that this is technology we’ve used extensively in oncology. It’s a proven technology.”

It could take up to two years for EQO to fully develop the drug, however. Higley said until then, “Everybody should be clean, drain and dry when you leave the lake. It’s incredibly important.”

Widespread problem

According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, Lake Travis, Lake Austin and Lady Bird Lake, as well as Lake Georgetown, are all listed as infested lakes. 

Higley said, however, it is possible to de-infest. 

Colorado had eight bodies of water that tested positive for Zebra mussels in the past, but they all have been de-listed following five years of no detection. 

Colorado’s lawmakers passed the State Aquatic Nuisance Species (ANS) Act in 2008. 

According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s website, “The Act provides authority to qualified peace officers to inspect and, if necessary, decontaminate or quarantine watercraft for ANS. It also provides authority for trained authorized agents to inspect and decontaminate watercraft for ANS.”

It says they conduct nearly half a million inspections annually. 

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