Invasive freshwater zebra mussels are a problem in many regions, clogging structures such as water intake and treatment pipes as they multiply rapidly. New technology can help by making them eat “environmental” poison disguised as food.

Mussels feed by extracting water particles, evaluating them to determine their nutritional value, and then absorbing particles that are considered edible. Rejected particles bind to mucus and are then discarded.

Led by Professors David Aldridge and Jeff Mogridge, a team from the University of Cambridge set out to develop zebra-mussel-killing particles that would no be rejected by molluscs. To do this, they looked for particles that had previously been developed by Aldridge as a nutrient administration agent for farmed mussels.

Known as BioBullets, small spheres are greased and have a size, shape, and surface texture similar to those of algae, plankton, bacteria, and other particles that mussels typically feed on. And while the original aquaculture-oriented BioBullets contained vitamins, the newer ones encapsulate a combination of salts that are deadly to zebra mussels but not to native species.

Prof. David Aldridge, with a handful of zebra mussels

University of Cambridge

When batches of particles are periodically flushed through contaminated water pipes, many are ingested by zebra mussels, killing mollusks. The remaining uneaten BioBullet dissolves in the water within a few hours, releasing its salts in concentrations that are reported to be environmentally friendly.

The technology is currently being tested by seven British water companies with good results. According to one of these companies, using BioBullet is 69 percent cheaper than the traditional, much less environmentally friendly method of controlling zebra mussels, which involves flushing water pipes with chlorine for extended periods of time.

Scientists are now working to make the particles smaller and more toxic, which should reduce the amount needed.

“As climate change facilitates the continued spread of invasive species, mussel overgrowth is likely to deteriorate where we already have it and begin to appear in new places,” Aldridge said. “So it’s even more important to have these different tools in the crates to deal with the problem.”

Sources: University of Cambridge, BioBullets

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