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‘A REAL-LIFE GAME OF CLUE’ Alum investigates what’s killing freshwater mussels

Eric Leis, ’04 & ’07, and his team have associated some mussel death to viral infections, though questions remain about the origins and effects of these viruses.

E

ric Leis is slowly but surely unraveling a mystery.

The parasitologist and fish biologist at the La Crosse Fish Health Center is part of a small team investigating disturbingly high mortality rates among freshwater mussels in the rivers of North America and beyond. The team has associated some of these deaths with viral infections, but questions remain about these novel viruses and why exactly they are correlated with the dying mussels.

“Mussels are extremely important to the ecosystem — they’re like nature’s Brita filter,” explains Leis, ’04 & ’07. “They filter and purify the water, stabilize riverbeds and indicate a healthy ecosystem overall. So if they’re dying in mass numbers, and they are, it’s something we should be talking about.” Leis divides his time evenly among field work, lab work and writing papers related to the declining mussel populations. He and the rest of the team have established themselves as leading authorities on the subject. They’ve received questions

12 SCIENCE & HEALTH NEWS WINTER 2020-21

and samples from all over the world — from Oregon to Virginia to Spain. Earlier this year, Leis lent his expertise to a New York Times story. According to Leis, one virus in particular was statistically linked to moribund mussels. More work is needed to determine if this virus is pathogenic, as well as whether there are environmental conditions that influence viral expression and, ultimately, disease progression. In addition to the virus, there may be other culprits.

Profile for University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

UWL College of Science and Health Newsletter Winter 2021  

University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Science & Health newsletter is published biannually for UWL College of Science and Health alumni and frien...

UWL College of Science and Health Newsletter Winter 2021  

University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Science & Health newsletter is published biannually for UWL College of Science and Health alumni and frien...

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