Water Perspective: An interview with a sea lamprey pheromone expert

Monday, February 15, 2016

As researcher Cory Brant will tell you, pheromones are the name of the game when it comes to promising new strategies for sea lamprey control in the Great Lakes. Learn more about the diversity of research Cory has been engaged in, including his current efforts to collect oral histories from individuals who dealt with the destructive nature of the sea lamprey to understand why its control remains successful in the Great Lakes and to help inform control of new aquatic invasive threats entering the Great Lakes. 
 
Q: Briefly describe your research and area(s) of expertise. 
 
A: Under the mentorship of Dr. Weiming Li, my graduate work at Michigan State University focused on chemical communication (pheromone) research in the sea lamprey. Sea lamprey use a pheromone (or unique chemical message) to locate mates for courtship. I worked with a team of experts that integrated analytical chemistry, molecular biology, electrophysiology, and animal behavior to identify and understand the function of this irresistible sea lamprey “love cocktail.” As you may notice, this is a very specialized line of work. However, the end goal is broad – to develop additional ways to control invasive sea lamprey in the Great Lakes basin. 
 
Recently, I’ve added a human dimension to my research interests. Working as a post-doctoral researcher with another team of experts at the U-M Water Center and Great Lakes Fishery Commission, I’ve been traveling the Great Lakes basin collecting oral histories from individuals that dealt with the destructive nature of the sea lamprey in the mid-20th century. We plan to use these first-hand insights to understand how and why sea lamprey control remains successful in the Great Lakes, create the official historic record of sea lamprey control, and examine how this story can inform policy, practice, and action regarding new aquatic invasive threats entering the Great Lakes.
 
Q: How did you transition from your pheromone work to your current focus?
 
A: My transition from sea lamprey pheromone work to the sea lamprey oral history project was exciting, to say the least. I didn’t have access to a lot of qualitative research opportunities in the past. During my graduate work I became friends with many of the hard working individuals who had been involved with the sea lamprey control. This helped me out greatly when I found myself calling these folks up later to ask to come to their homes and interview them about their careers.
 
Q: What are you learning from your current work and where is it taking you?
 
A: I think the first most important thing that my current work has been reemphasizing to me is the value of first-hand insights, oral histories, and traditional ecological knowledge when looking to unravel a scientific question. Oral histories present invaluable first-hand insights into ecological problems from the perspective of someone who lived through, or currently deals with, the issue. This type of knowledge can be used by researchers for years and years to come. I’ve always felt that using multi-disciplinary approaches to scientific questions and environmental issues is a good idea. My current work is really highlighting that way of thinking.
 
Q: You have dedicated a lot of your time to understanding this unique animal that has had major impacts on the Great Lakes. On one hand you must appreciate the sea lamprey for the creature it is but, on the other, tools for its control are critical. What is your perspective for this line of research?  
 
A: Indeed – I have a love/hate relationship with the sea lamprey. It is easy to recognize the destructive nature of this animal in the Great Lakes. As its name implies, sea lamprey are native to the Atlantic ocean, and moved into the Great Lakes through shipping canals at the turn of the 20th century. By the 1940’s, they had infested the entire Great Lakes basin. Sea lamprey feed by attaching themselves to a fish’s body with their toothy, suction cup-like oral disc, slowly rasping through the fishes scales with a toothed tongue, and ingesting broken down tissue and blood. Unfortunately, the native fish of the Great Lakes are not equipped to handle a parasite of this size. A single sea lamprey kills up to 40 pounds of fish in their lifetime in the Great Lakes. For these reasons, it is imperative that the sea lamprey is controlled throughout the Great Lakes basin. However, the sea lamprey is threatened in its native European range due, in part, to damming of rivers and pollution. This animal is a living fossil, and has remained relatively unchanged for 300 million years. Sea lamprey are used for research on liver diseases in infants, embryonic development, evolution of communication in vertebrates, swimming mechanics based on their super-efficient snake-like swimming pattern, odor tracking, mate choice, and neurophysiology. And, the sea lamprey genome was recently revealed. There is much we can learn from sea lamprey, both from the story of invasion and control in the Great Lakes, and the story of the creature that it is.