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Press Releases

Monday, October 25, 2004

SU Professors Assist State With Bacterial Source Tracking Lab

SALISBURY, MD---In the early 20th century, the Wye River was one of the most pristine waterways in Maryland. Today, the murky river is off limits for recreational swimming and is under restricted shellfish harvesting use due to potential health concerns. The Wye is not alone. With pressure mounting on Maryland and virtually all other states from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to clean up its waterways, Salisbury University together with the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) is at the forefront of the statewide clean water campaign. SU’s Bacterial Source Tracking (BST) Laboratory, the only one of its kind in Maryland and one of the relatively few in the United States, is discovering the sources of fecal pollution in Maryland waterways are not always what people think. With five years’ experience in the field, Drs. Mark Frana and Elichia Venso, directors of the lab, have gained recognition nationally for their work.  “We have had people contact us from as far away as Michigan asking if we could help them,” said Frana. For Michigan and other states, the answer is always a polite “no.” Testing six to eight Maryland waterways per year, the in-state work keeps SU’s experts busy year-round. In 2003 alone, Drs. Frana and Venso logged some 250,000 data entries for the MDE. Ten years ago the technology for bacterial source tracking didn’t exist. In the late 1990s, SU’s BST lab began performing  tests using DNA fingerprinting to determine the sources of E. coli virus in the Wye River. The presence of this bacteria meant the water was contaminated with fecal matter, and DNA types profiling determined the source of that material: wildlife, livestock or human. However, that method was expensive and very time consuming. Since 1999, several new BST methods have been developed. Today, Drs. Frana and Venso expose samples from polluted waterways to 32 different concentrations of several different antibiotics, determining the contamination’s source based on how strongly the bacteria resists the antibiotics’ actions. While this method is less expensive, scientists still are searching for an even less costly testing procedure that provides similar accuracy. However, discovering that method may take time. Only a limited number of scientists in the United States specialize in this type of tracking. According to Frana and Venso’s research on the Wye river, wildlife accounted for the majority of fecal matter found in that particular waterway, humans for the least. That information alone may be key to cleaning waterways to EPA standards and preventing similar pollution in the future. This could lead to the reopening of some contaminated waterways currently closed to fishing and recreation. SU’s BST Lab will work with MDE at least through 2009 to make Maryland’s bays, rivers and streams cleaner.  “Our waters are an integral part of our environment,” said Venso. “Aesthetically and economically, they are important to all of us.” For more information call 410-543-6030 or visit the SU Web site at

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