The environmental sample processor (ESP) is a molecular biology lab packed (robotic technician and all) inside a canister the size of a kitchen garbage can. A decade in development, the present version of the robot works well in surface waters.
At prearranged times or when triggered by another sensor, the ESP filters 2-L (a half-gallon) of seawater into its metal-alloy housing. The sample is washed and treated with chemicals that break down cell membranes. The freed cell contents are then washed over a wafer and passed to a series of robotic devices.
Within these devices is where the molecular chemistry happens. Standard tests detect gene products and answer specific questions: By detecting specific RNA sequences, the system can find out which organisms are present. Or, by testing for particular proteins, it can ask what those organisms are doing. (For example, an RNA test can look for a particular kind of harmful algae; a protein test can learn how much toxin it is producing.)
In surface waters, these tests are useful for monitoring algae and bacteria populations. They can also identify larger creatures such as mussel and barnacle larvae, helping biologists piece together normally hidden parts of these animals’ life cycles. For the MARS observatory, MBARI is developing a deep-water ESP that can do the same work in the deep ocean’s cold and extreme pressure.
Procedures for genetic identification of marine organisms, and for clarifying their role in biogeochemical cycles, typically require collecting samples at sea and returning them to a fully equipped laboratory for individual analyses.To reduce time and costs, MBARI initiated the development of the Environmental Sample Processor (ESP), and new techniques to allow remote application of molecular probe technology. With the ESP, researchers will be able to conduct molecular biological analyses remotely, in real-time over a sustained period, and with interactive capability. The organisms will be analyzed, fresh from the sea, and in a timely manner and with significant reduction of costs.
This video gives some background information to help explain the design, engineering and deployment of the Environmental Sample Processor (ESP).
Astrobiology Magazine : (04/07/07)
Taking the Ocean's Pulse
Astrobiology Magazine : (03/30/06)
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