The state Division of Marine Fisheries and Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute are working together to develop new genomic tools to detect norovirus in shellfish.

The two-year, collaborative research program, funded in the first year with a $200,000 line item in the newly approved $43.3 billion state budget, is not in response to increased human contraction of norovirus via shellfish. Instead, it's an attempt to marshal scientific resources in advance of a problem.

"One hundred years ago, the concern with shellfish sanitation was completely bacterial," said Jeff Kennedy, DMF's shellfish regional supervisor. "Now it's much more viral. We want to get ahead of any problem and hopefully protect our citizens and shellfish fisheries before it becomes a problem."

Norovirus is an extremely contagious virus that can cause vomiting and diarrhea in humans who contract it either from contact with an infected person or surface, or by consuming contaminated food or water. Most prominently, norovirus has been blamed for many viral outbreaks aboard cruise ships.

Kennedy said much of the research will be focused on studying something called a Male Specific Coliphage that shows promise as a possible indicator of the presence of norovirus. The MSC, he said, has been used extensively in the European Union to trace sewage pollution in marine environments.

"It's being viewed here as a newer, potential indicator for sanitation in shellfish," Kennedy said.  "What we want to do is try to determine if there is a relationship in Massachusetts between the indicator and the pathogen norovirus."

Kennedy said DMF will provide the biological infrastructure for identifying and sampling shellfish — particularly those in proximity wastewater treatment plants — and GMGI will apply its genomic sequencing to help determine if the MSC is a dependable indicator of the presence of norovirus.

He said the specific testing sites have not been determined yet, a task made more complex by the varying degrees of water quality, location of the state's sewer and water treatment plants and water temperatures that differ by location.

"We've had a number of strategy sessions," said Tim Sullivan, a researcher at GMGI. "Now that we have the money, we can begin developing the tools we need to conduct the actual research to understand the molecular markers we'll need to study the relationship between the coliphage and norovirus."

GMGI, based on the Gloucester waterfront, also received $25,000 from another line item in the 2020 fiscal year budget to begin studying the development of a regional broadband infrastructure to support big-data science and data from other commercial and research disciplines on and off Cape Ann.

"Our two sequencers create a tremendous amount of data that we process in house but share with many of collaborators and partners," said Andrea Bodnar, GMGI's science director.

The volume of data, she said, often creates a data bottleneck in and out of Cape Ann on GMGI's current broadband network.

"The $25,000 will fund a feasibility study to answer questions on construction, cabling, hardware and other details, as well as the cost and the benefits to the region as a whole," Bodnar said. "This really lends itself to the portion of our mission dedicated to economic development."

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT.

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