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NSF’s Maine EPSCoR receives $20 million environmental monitoring grant

The National Science Foundation (NSF), an independent Washington-based organization within the federal government, has announced its intention to grant, as part of its Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) program, $20 million toward Maine’s new five-year environmental DNA initiative.  Such assistance will serve as a continuation of the Science Foundation’s previously awarded project, the Sustainable Ecological Aquaculture Network program, or SEANET, which was granted to Maine’s arm of EPSCoR in 2014 to improve statewide research and developmental infrastructure.

For proper implementation of the environmental DNA (or eDNA) initiative, the University of Maine will work in cooperation with Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, as well as other entities in local education, government and industry, toward improving the environmental monitoring and ecological understanding of Maine’s coastal areas. With the research and data each partner intends to gather, the eDNA initiative will assist coastal areas and businesses with their development of a more sustainable industry and the creation of a more sustainable future.

“The Maine Environmental DNA (Maine-eDNA) initiative represents a multi-institutional partnership that will position Maine as a national leader in the understanding and sustainable use of coastal ecosystems, and in addressing the statewide workforce needs in critically important areas, including biotechnology, ecology, environmental and data sciences,” Kody Varahramyan, UMaine’s vice president for research and graduate school dean, said in a press statement.

One of UMaine’s leaders in the eDNA program, Michael Kinnison, explained that the initiative will greatly improve the ability of researchers to gather data in Maine’s coastal areas.

“It is a revolutionary way to get a snapshot look at organisms in their natural environments, from lakes to the ocean, and microbes to whales,” Kinnison says. “There’s never been anything like it for crowdsourcing our understanding of coastal biodiversity.”

The challenges posed by a changing climate and other disruptive ecological issues have, according to Kinnison, made necessary the increased amount of monitoring and research that the eDNA initiative will bring. Only through such monitoring, Kinnison noted, can scientists and policy-makers sustainably manage Maine’s vital coastal areas.

All four of Maine’s congressional representatives — Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, and Reps. Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree — have voiced their approval of the NSF’s decision.

“Keeping Maine’s coastal ecosystem healthy is essential to preserving this precious natural resource that sustains thousands of Maine jobs,” the senators said in a joint statement. “This investment will advance the University of Maine’s work, in partnership with Bigelow Laboratory, to better understand our coastal ecosystem and find solutions to offset the impacts of changing ocean conditions on our communities, marine life and economy.” 

Reps. Golden and Pingree, in separate statements, each expressed enthusiasm at the eDNA initiative’s possible economic effects, stating respectively that “this research will provide the information to innovate and develop our industries and lead Maine to a more sustainable future,” and that “it is heartening to see national programs such as NSF partner with on-the-ground experts to support their vision.”

In addition to its impacts on Maine’s coastal industries and environment, the eDNA initiative, through its generation of significant scientific data, is expected to benefit environmental science across the state of Maine. By providing the necessary opportunities for citizens to become involved in scientific pursuits, and with proper funding thereof, the eDNA initiative’s organizers hope to foster an increase of scientific interest and aptitude among all citizens, especially those from younger generations. 

“Maine needs a robust STEM-literate workforce to secure the future of Maine,” UMaine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy said. “By leveraging this important funding from the National Science Foundation at the state’s public research university, in partnership with Bigelow Laboratory, Maine EPSCoR is able to create educational opportunities and internships in the context of significant research areas for Maine. This will help ensure that students persist in STEM-related fields, grow Maine’s workforce, and solve problems.”


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