Every summer it seems like news about a surge of poisonous red tides gets worse and worse. But in a ray of hope, Stanford researchers say they are wrapping up a successful test of toxic algae-detecting robots that could help save millions of aquatic animals each year, as well as millions of dollars. Earlier this July, a research group led by Stanford marine scientists launched an army of robotic sensors, called Environmental Sample Processors, to watch over the Puget Sound’s Samish Bay in Washington and sniff out any early signs of algal or bacterial blooms.
The researchers say when the NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center co-led study comes to a close later this month it could lead to a framework for a full-time early-warning system. Typically the detection of harmful algae and bacteria can take up to two days between collecting samples at sea and bringing them back to a lab on land for analysis. The Environmental Sample Processor (ESP) cuts this entire process to just four to six hours.
The researchers say the near real-time results could help fishermen determine when harvesting conditions are safe. An early warning system like ESP could help fisherman save millions of dollars in damages, and also keep the public safe from toxins that could make their way to fish markets and dinner plates.
The ESP works by basically sucking up water samples and isolating any microbes. Inside of this tubular robot, there’s an on-board lab that uses heat and chemicals to break down the cells to allow the system to check the sample’s DNA and RNA. All of this data is sent back remotely, via a cellular modem, to the lab, where researchers can test for toxic algae, bacteria, or fecal pollution. The scientists can also determine if a hazardous bloom will occur and get the word out to the public in a much faster manner than can presently be done.
“Sometimes the blooms occur without any warning, which is costly for recalling contaminated product,” Kevan Yamahara, an early career fellow at the Center for Ocean Solutions said in a release. “We can hopefully provide an early warning system so that the fishermen know that the microorganisms are present, which can maybe help them make decisions about how to harvest.”
Currently, the research team is working with Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute on a next generation ESP, which will be smaller and provide faster results. Meanwhile, Yamahara’s group has begun working with the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project on a similar project that will monitor water conditions near popular beaches.