Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science


Environmental Studies

First Advisor

Greg Garman, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Rodney Dyer, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Michael Fine, Ph.D.



The Atlantic Sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus oxyrinchus, Mitchell) is an anadromous species that spawns in tidal freshwater rivers from Canada to Florida. Overfishing, river sedimentation and alteration of the river bottom have decreased Atlantic Sturgeon populations, and NOAA lists the species as endangered. Ecologists sometimes find it difficult to locate individuals of a species that is rare, endangered or invasive. The need for methods less invasive that can create more resolution of cryptic species presence is necessary. Environmental DNA (eDNA) is a non-invasive means of detecting rare, endangered, or invasive species by isolating nuclear or mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from the water column. We evaluated the potential of eDNA to document the presence of Atlantic Sturgeon in the James River, Virginia. Genetic primers targeted the mitochondrial Cytochrome Oxydase I gene, and a restriction enzyme assay (DraIII) was developed. Positive control mesocosm and James River samples revealed a nonspecific sequence—mostly bacteria commonly seen in environmental waters. Methods more stringent to a single species was necessary. Novel qPCR primers were derived from a second region of Cytochrome Oxydase II, and subject to quantitative PCR. This technique correctly identified Atlantic Sturgeon DNA and differentiated among other fish taxa commonly occurring in the lower James River, Virginia. Quantitative PCR had a biomass detection limit of 32.3 ug/L and subsequent analysis of catchment of Atlantic Sturgeon from the Lower James River, Virginia from the fall of 2013 provided estimates of 264.2 ug/L Atlantic Sturgeon biomass. Quantitative PCR sensitivity analysis and incorporation of studies of the hydrology of the James River should be done to further define habitat utilization by local Atlantic Sturgeon populations.

IACUC: AD20127


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