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The river runs through US

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Apart from the global positioning satellite hookup, the sonar depth-finder, and a device called a datasonde that tests water chemistry, the scientific gear on board is surprisingly low-tech. Students Lisa Smith and Dave Harris scoop up river water in Mason jars and record their bearings in photocopied log books. Prof. Mike Miller catalogues water filters in squares of marker-scrawled aluminum foil. Formaldehyde, to preserve mussels and algae, travels in a neon-green sippy cup.

"We still have to spend a lot of time in the lab, especially in the winter," says Ms. Smith, a senior at West Virginia's Marshall University who plans to pursue her master's in environmental microbiology. "But to me this is the real science, the science of being out there in the world."

As the Monark makes its way downriver toward Cincinnati, the team's larger pontoon boat is covering the 50 miles of river north of California. Both boats stop every five miles to sample the water; scientists on board are gathering data for 20 different experiments on three main environmental problems. Their findings will help the US Geological Survey (USGS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and other monitoring bodies develop a better understanding - and new regulations for the care - of what French explorers once called la belle rivière.

No. 1: Musseling in

The Monark's first stop is a floating dock on the Kentucky bank that looks as though it has seen its share of floods. Lisa and Dave don life vests and hop into the muddy water to scour the dock's underside for an exotic species of mussel.

Natives of Norway, zebra mussels first came to the Great Lakes in 1989, probably in the bilge water of a boat. Since then, the voracious super-breeders have populated almost all the major inland waterways in the eastern half of the US. As they spread, they've been killing off already-threatened native mussels - the canaries in the underwater coal mine - says aquatic biologist John Hageman.

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