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Zequanox is no silver bullet for stopping aquatic invasive species

By Jeff Forester, executive director, Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates,

St. Paul, MN

In March, the New York Times published a story called “Science Takes on Silent Invader,” a version of which was reprinted in the Star Tribune. The article seems to indicate that scientists are closing in on a “silver bullet” solution, something that can be safely added to lakes that will kill zebra mussels and nothing else. Unfortunately, the article is misleading and the hope it generates unfounded.

The article outlines the work of Dr. Dan Malloy with Pseudomonas fluorescens, a naturally occurring bacterium that kills zebra mussels. The bacterium is being marketed under the name Zequanox.

The public is justifiably excited about this discovery. Zebra mussels can threaten fisheries, lake ecology, and Minnesota’s

$4 billion annual recreation-based economy; Mille Lacs being the most recent and painful example. Aquatic invasive

species can lower property tax base and destroy public infrastructure like dams and water intake pipes at drinking water

and hydroelectric facilities.

The blogosphere and many newspapers have recently declared the war on zebra mussels to be won, but sadly those reports

are grossly premature. Yes, Zequanox can kill zebra mussels without harming other life, but it has an insurmountable obstacle of scale. There is simply no viable open water application.

Zequanox will kill ZMs in a pipe or tank with better than 90 percent effectiveness, and does not harm other creatures.

But Zequanox is not a live bacterium, and so must be reapplied, which is cost prohibitive. If an inexpensive method of synthesizing Zequanox were to be developed, it would still be impossible to get concentrations high enough to treat even a

small open water lake with currents, wind and waves. 

Dr. Malloy is actively seeking funding of research, building on his earlier work with Pseudomonas fluorescens, with an emphasis on trying to find a live organism that was selfreplicating, could get federal approval, and would not harm any other aquatic life in the system. Dr. Malloy recognized that while his work to create Zequanox was like looking for a needle in a haystack, finding a similar live organism for open water treatments would be like initiating a moon shot, and predicts an open water solution would take decades, if it was found.

Quoting Dr. Peter Sorenson, chair of Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center: “As we look for solutions to the state’s AIS problems, we need to recognize that a combination of approaches that include prevention and shortterm fixes, as well as new science that aims for fundamental change with long-lasting effects is needed. This will take sustained effort and time.”

There may never be a cure for the common cold or zebra mussels, but that doesn’t mean our lakes have to get sick. Instead, we will need to enlist an array of strategies, behavior changes, tools and laws to continually lower the risk of  ransmission. Controlling AIS is about controlling the pathways on which they travel from one lake to another. The good

news/bad news is that the great majority of these pathways rely on humans. We do have a certain amount of control.

Zequanox may well play a role in this work, for instance as a treatment for ballast water tanks in wakeboard boats or in live wells and difficult to reach bilges, but there is no silver bullet in Zequanox.