From: Editor, ENN
Published July 15, 2009 10:41 AM

NOAA developes first underwater detection system of harmful algae toxins

Researchers from NOAA's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) have carried out the first remote detection of a harmful algal species and its toxin.

Harmful algae blooms (HABs) and marine biotoxins impact the whole marine food web and the human endeavors associated with living marine resources.  HAB events can occur in relatively small areas, many of them have origins in far off-shore oceanic environments. It is believed that climate change is expected to exacerbate HAB events, due to changes in water temperature and ocean circulation, which are influenced by climate. Because of the scale of these HAB events, NOAA developed a HAP Operational Forecast System, used to develop predictions of the transport and potential development of harmful algae conditions in the Gulf of Mexico. This remote detection system is a major milestone in NOAA's effort to monitor the type and toxicity of harmful algal blooms (HABs) and forecast their development.

The remote detection system is called the Environmental Sample Processor, or 'ESP.' The processor is designed as a fully-functional underwater laboratory, allowing researchers to collect and analyze the algal cells identifying specific toxins and genetic information in order to assess the risk to humans and wildlife.


Greg Doucette, Ph.D., a research oceanographer at NOAA’s Center for Coastal Environmental Health and Biomolecular Research laboratory in Charleston, S.C. remarks "This represents the first autonomous detection of both a HAB species and its toxin by an underwater sensor.  It allows us to determine not only the organism causing a bloom, but also the toxicity of the event, which ultimately dictates whether it is a threat to the public and the ecosystem."

Much of NOAAs research has focused on the Gulf coast; however, the West Coast of the United States includes a different set of HAB organisms and toxins including Pseudo-nitzschia, Alexandrium catenella, Heterosigma, Ciguatera Poisoning and Diarrhetic Shellfish Poison. Greg Doucette and his colleague, Chris Scholin, Ph.D., focused on certain members of the algal genus Pseudo-nitzschia and their neurotoxin, domoic acid in Monterey Bay.

Major outbreaks of Pseudo-nitzschia and domoic acid have occurred in the Bay area in 1991 and 1998, resulting in the death of a large number of marine wildlife. Since that time, Pseudo-nitzschia and domoic acid have appeared almost annually on the west coast resulting in intensive statewide monitoring programs. It is believed that the ESP technology will benefit these statewide monitoring programs, providing critical information for coastal managers and public health officials in mitigating impacts on the coastal ecosystem.

You can read more about the study in the June issue of Oceanography.

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