Itasca field station celebrates 100 years of service

Many Minnesotans have fond memories of childhood summer trips to Itasca State Park, the oldest of Minnesota state parks.

“I walked across the Mississippi River,” was heard from young and old alike as they jumped from rock to rock across the 20-foot-wide headwaters of the Mississippi River.

Few realize, however, that the park hosts one of the oldest continuously operated scientific field training centers in the United States, the Itasca Biological Field Station and Laboratory of the University of Minnesota.

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Photo: Tracy Anderson, University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota students at Itasca in 2006

Itasca is ideal for ecological research because it reveals what Minnesota was like before European settlers arrived and development for agriculture and housing changed the state’s landscape.

University of Minnesota students first arrived at the station for field biology classes in the 1930s. Research has continued from the 1930s through today, and current research reflects advances in ecology driven by molecular biology, genomics, remote sensing and computational biology.

The Minnesota Mississippi Metagenome project is one exciting example of the current research and the potential impact the research will have on our understanding of ecology.

The Minnesota Mississippi Metagenome project, proposed by College of Biological Sciences Dean Robert Elde, a Freshwater Society board member, was established to create a DNA data base of aquatic microorganisms at the headwaters of the Mississippi. This water is the most pristine found along the 2000-plus miles of the river.

Students and faculty will study impacts of agriculture and other human activities on the microbial diversity at points all along the river, including the Twin Cities, to the Gulf of Mexico, uncovering important information on the health of the river.

Dick Gray, founder of the Freshwater Society, has recognized and supported the importance of freshwater research since 1960, and the Freshwater Society continues to support the vision and goals of the Itasca Biological Station as it works to refurbish 11 freshwater labs, engages in groundbreaking ecological research and brings its findings to citizens.

Much more work is needed to refurbish the labs for freshwater research and the university is seeking additional funding to place Itasca among the top field biology stations in the country.

Ray Lindeman, a gifted Minnesotan, who revolutionized ecology, penned a 1936 poem about Lake Itasca…

Here we search the placid waters,
Find a microcosmic sea
Wherein hunting, hunted microbes
Eat and live and die, as we…
Dynamic worlds are set before us,
Let us humbly seek to learn.