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NCCOS Project

Robotic, Underwater Sensor for Harmful Algal Bloom Toxins

This project began in January 2002 and is ongoing

We developed a device to provide resource managers and public-health officials with valuable, real-time data on harmful algal bloom (HAB) toxicity. This robotic, underwater sensor provides fast and accurate measurements of harmful toxins associated with marine algal blooms. Bloom toxicity is one of several factors that determine the potential for adverse effects on humans and wildlife, and toxicity levels are known to fluctuate rapidly over a wide range.

Why We Care
Each year domoic acid released from harmful algal blooms causes more than $20 million in fishery- related economic losses in U.S. coastal communities. Toxin levels change constantly according to environmental conditions during the course of an algal bloom, making real-time toxicity measurements essential for managers and responders. Early warning of a toxic bloom and rapid response are critical in minimizing risks associated with a bloom event such as human illness and death, and fishery closures.

What We Are Doing
We worked with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute to develop an autonomous, underwater sensor that detects both harmful algae of the genus Pseudo-nitzschia and the potent neurotoxin they produce, domoic acid.
The Environmental Sample Processor (ESP) instrument:

  1. uses DNA probes to detect the algae and antibodies to detect their toxin;
  2. sends the information in near-real time to users located on ship or shore;
  3. reveals the abundance and toxicity of algal cells present during a bloom and helps managers make informed decisions to mitigate the bloom’s impacts;
  4. provides early warning of increasing toxicity, allowing strategic shellfish harvesting closures and re-openings, and minimizes the risk of human exposure.

The ESP is now available commercially.

Next Steps
We are developing a new application that will allow the ESP to detect another class of algal toxins: paralytic shellfish poisoning toxins. Several partners are investigating the use of this sensor technology to monitor harmful algal blooms along the coasts of New England (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) and the Pacific Northwest (NOAA West Coast Center for Oceans and Human Health).

We envision the ESP as an integral part of the US Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS), providing critical information on harmful algal blooms to coastal resource managers. A follow-on project funded by the National Science Foundation will transition the ESP’s HAB species and toxin detection capabilities onto an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV). Deployment of the AUV-mounted ESP will provide an unprecedented ability to track HABs in both time and space while measuring changes in cell abundance and toxicity, along with other factors such as temperature, salinity, and nutrients, characteristics that may influence growth and toxin production in these algae.

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