Robotic sensor used to search for harmful algae, pathogens

Fresh mediterranean clamsThere are some pretty cool things beneath the waters of Puget Sound – fish, shellfish, robots.

Yes, robots, and they’re doing an important job. This summer, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NWFSC) deployed a robotic sensor called the environmental sample processor (ESP) to detect the presence of algal blooms that can produce harmful toxins as well as to look for other problems, such as pathogens. ESP collects water samples and, using molecular beacon probes, detects the presence of microbes through their DNA.

Toxins produced by certain species of algae can contaminate shellfish stocks and lead to human illness when consumed, including amnesic shellfish poisoning, diarrhetic shellfish poisoning and paralytic shellfish poisoning. Fish and shellfish contaminated with these toxins don’t look or taste any different than non-contaminated fish and, unlike pathogens, the toxins can’t be “killed” by cooking.

The NWFSC also looksfor the pathogen Vibrio parahaemolyticus, which also can cause gastrointestinal illness in humans, as well as other indicators of contamination.

Puget Sound boasts several areas where shellfish are extensively harvested, including Samish Bay, one of the locations ESP was deployed. Scientists hope ESP will provide early warning of harmful algal blooms and bacteria, which may prevent illness and the loss of millions of the dollars in damage to fisheries, tourism and the like, according to KomoNews.

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