SOUTH PORTLAND — A $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation will fund a five-year, statewide initiative by Southern Maine Community College and several other Maine institutions that aims to revolutionize the understanding of ocean ecosystems and management of marine resources.

The grant to the University of Maine in Orono and the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay will fund a large-scale effort to monitor aquatic life in coastal waters using environmental DNA, or eDNA, which are the genetic traces left behind by all plants, animals and microbes.

Through the Maine-eDNA program, SMCC will team with the Bigelow Lab and Colby College in Waterville to monitor blooms of harmful algae in Casco Bay, which surrounds SMCC’s campus on Spring Point.

SMCC students will participate in ocean field research through the college’s associate degree program in marine science and for senior capstone projects.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for our students to use cutting-edge technology for real-world scientific research,” said Brian Tarbox, marine science professor at SMCC. “We will be collecting data to monitor and gauge the sustainability of our marine ecosystems and how they are changing.”

The emergence of eDNA research is considered vital to protecting and managing Maine’s marine resources and the fishing, lobstering, aquaculture and other marine industries that are major economic contributors to the state.

“Keeping Maine’s coastal ecosystem healthy is essential to preserving this precious natural resource that sustains thousands of Maine jobs,” U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King said in a joint statement.

A small water sample contains a massive amount of information that can help researchers build a snapshot of the surrounding ecosystem.

“eDNA can change the landscape of how we gather data on coastal systems,” said Michael Kinnison, a UMaine professor and science lead for the Maine-eDNA program. “There’s never been anything like it for crowd-sourcing our understanding of coastal biodiversity.”

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