UNT Health Science Center Researcher's Work May Offer Solution to Zebra Mussels

Professor says there could be bonding agent that would prevent zebra mussels from attaching to pipes, boats

By Brian Scott
|  Wednesday, Sep 25, 2013  |  Updated 3:03 PM CDT
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A North Texas scientist believes he may have found a solution to the zebra mussel problem across North Texas lakes.

Brian Scott, NBC 5 Denton County Reporter

A North Texas scientist believes he may have found a solution to the zebra mussel problem across North Texas lakes.

Zebra mussels may already be in North Texas lakes, but a local scientist says the key to preventing infrastructure damage may be in learning how zebra mussels attach to surfaces and using it against them.

Dr. John Schetz, a University of North Texas Health Science Center pharmacologist and neuroscientist, has been researching the topic and believes the answer may be in how zebra mussels attach to things such as rocks, pipes and boats.

"They have a glue that works underwater that allows them to attach to surfaces," he said.

Think of the natural glue as cement or an epoxy -- bonding agents that require the chemical reaction of two solutions to work. In nature, the reaction occurs when enzymes interact with that glue, allowing the mussel to attach onto a surface.

Schetz said he first began studying it in barnacles, which latch onto surfaces much like the mussels. Through that research, his team found chemical agents that could be added to a surface that would block the enzymes and not allow the barnacles to stick.

He said he believes the same principal could be used against the zebra mussels through a paint or coating containing the blocking agent being added to surfaces they cling to.

"They can put out their byssal threads and they can try to put glue down, but the glue never hardens or cures and, therefore, it's never effective; it never actually sticks," he said.

Schetz plans to present his studies for publication soon in hopes of getting funding for the project.

It would be ideal to develop something before new water pipelines are built so the chemical can be added to the surface, prevent mussels from latching on and causing massive damage, Schetz said.

"Even if you may not be able to keep them out of the lakes, you certainly wouldn't want to have to clean them out of pipes because they're a big clogging problem," he said.

The mussels also latch onto boats and, if they aren't cleaned off, are transported from lake to lake. If an environmentally friendly blocking agent were produced, it could also be added to the outside of boats.

While it is still in the early phases, Schetz hopes his research will quickly come to life and prevent further damage in Texas lakes. He and the University of North Texas have worked with the state government in the past to research the zebra mussel problem and keep on top of infestations.

"I think with the appropriate level of investment and interest, we could start that right away," he said.

Zebra mussels have been found in Lake Texoma, Lake Ray Roberts and, as of this summer, Lake Lewisville and Lake Bridgeport. Texas Parks and Wildlife experts say mussels rapidly reproduce and are there to stay.

The state recently proposed tougher rules for North Texas boaters that would wage fines for not properly draining and cleaning their boats.

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