MINNEAPOLIS -- Sam Erickson followed his love of science to outer space one summer during an internship at NASA. He came away fascinated by seeing into deep space by interpreting interaction between matter and infrared radiation.
Now a full-fledged researcher at the University of Minnesota's College of Biological Sciences, the 25-year-old Alaska native is immersed in something far more earthly: killing carp. His fast-moving genetic engineering project is drawing attention from around the country as a potential tool to stop the spread of invasive carp.
"I want to make a special fish," Erickson said in a recent interview at Gortner Laboratory in Falcon Heights.
In short, he plans to produce batches of male carp that would destroy the eggs of female carp during spawning season. The modified male fish would spray the eggs as if fertilizing them. But the seminal fluid -- thanks to DNA editing -- would instead cause the embryonic eggs to biologically self-destruct in a form of birth control that wouldn't affect other species nor create mutant carp in the wild.
His goal is to achieve the result in a controlled setting using common carp. From there, it will be up to federal regulators and fisheries biologists to decide whether to translate the technology to constrain reproduction of invasive carp in public waters.
"What we're developing is a tool," Erickson said. "If we could make this work, it would be a total game-changer."
Supervised by University of Minnesota assistant professor Michael Smanski, Erickson recently received approval to accelerate his project by hiring a handful of undergraduate assistants. He also traveled last month to Springfield, Ill., to present his research plan to the 2020 Midwest Fish and Wildlife Conference.
"We're pretty excited about where his project is at," said Nick Phelps, director of the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center at the U. "Things are sure moving fast. There's excitement and caution."
Erickson's research has received funding from Minnesota's Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. No breeding populations of invasive carp have been detected in Minnesota, but the Department of Natural Resources has confirmed several individual fish captures and the agency has worked to keep the voracious eaters from migrating upstream from the lower Mississippi River. Silver carp, bighead carp and other Asian carps pose a threat to rivers and lakes in the state because they would compete with native species for food and habitat.
Erickson views his birth control project as one possible piece in the university's integrated Asian carp research approach to keep invasive carp out of state waters. Already the DNR has supported electric barriers and underwater sound and bubble deterrents at key migration points. Another Asian carp-control milestone was closing the Mississippi River lock at Upper St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis in 2015.