OMAHA – To the layperson, they look like any other fish. There’s nothing unusual about their scales, fins or gills. There is, however, a 250-page government document dedicated to dealing with the threat they pose.
Asian carp are some of the most invasive, destructive fish in the United States.
This summer, recent University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) graduate Sarah Gaughan’s research on curbing that threat took her to China.
Her goal is to create a comparison of the native fish to those in the U.S., leading to a better understanding of what biological features make the Asian carp living in the States so fit.
“As we look at how everything is going, we can’t just focus on simply our country,” Gaughan said.
Asian carp are outcompeting fish along the Mississippi River; experts fear they could reach the Great Lakes, harming endangered species and the area’s bustling fishing industry.
“It’s a major issue,” Gaughan said. “And that would be the worst case scenario.”
Gaughan graduated with her master’s degree in May. A month later, she headed to China. The National Science Foundation’s East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes for U.S. Graduate Students (EAPSI) fellowship program is funding her eight-week research experience in China.
The Maverick said her time at UNO was key to earning the fellowship.
Cutting-edge research lured Gaughan to UNO to pursue her master’s degree. While finishing her undergraduate studies at Texas A&M, she learned about the work UNO Biology Professor Guoqing Lu, Ph.D., was doing, involving genetic research as a conservation tool.
“He’s kind of a bioinformatics genius,” Gaughan said.
Through her graduate coursework in the Lu Lab, Gaughan was hooked on one subject in particular: hybridization. That’s the term for when two different species breed and produce offspring.
“Biologists kind of cringe when you say hybridization, because it’s messy,” Gaughan said.
But it’s also important. There’s evidence that hybrids are linked to harmful changes in an ecosystem.
Asian carp hybridize in the U.S. They don’t in China.
Examining their DNA could be key to managing the threat in the U.S.
“For instance, we could use targeted commercial fishing efforts,” Gaughan said. “Tell fishermen to spend more of their harvest time in the area where these different genotypes gather.”
Collaboration is key to Gaughan’s work. In China, she is working with researchers from Shanghai Ocean University and the Key Laboratory of Ecological Impacts of Hydraulic-Projects and Restoration of Aquatic Ecosystem of Ministry of Water Resources. The Institute of Hydroecology, Ministry of Water Resources and Chinese Academy of Sciences are helping her collect wild Asian carp.
“This is such a great honor to be able to participate in a global scientific community,” Gaughan said. “It’s a phenomenal opportunity.”
Gaughan is staying in the University of Nebraska system for her doctoral work. She’ll start at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln this fall, with Lu remaining an advisor.
To date, Gaughan has one co-authored paper, two accepted manuscripts and one manuscript under revision.
Lu notes the continuous support from the Office of Research and Creative Activity at UNO through the FRI (Faculty Research International) program, calling it key to the success of the fellowship. The program allowed Lu’s group and his colleagues in China to develop an international research collaboration tackling Asian carp issues.