June 5, 2001

New instrument enables remote detection of toxic algae in real time

MOSS LANDING, California— Using the Environmental Sample Processor (ESP), the first in a new class of oceanographic research instrumentation, a team of MBARI scientists and engineers detected the onset and development of a harmful algal bloom (HAB). The ESP was deployed in May as part of an ongoing, multi-institution research effort in the Gulf of Maine aimed at understanding the growth, transport, and decay of toxic blooms which can adversely affect the health of humans and wildlife. The toxic dinoflagellate, Alexandrium fundyense, was detected during the experiment at low densities of approximately 100 cells per liter of seawater.

ESP DNA probe array revealing the presence of two different species of toxic algae. The two large bright spots near the top and left of the image are orientation registration marks. The four large spots near the bottom of the image are probes specific for Alexandrium tamarense, a dinoflagellate associated with the human disorder known as paralytic shellfish poisoning. The four faint spots near the top of the image are probes specific for Pseudo-nitzschia australis, a diatom known to produce the neurotoxin domoic acid.

The ESP was developed at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and is designed to autonomously collect discrete subsurface water samples and concentrate microorganisms contained within those samples onto filter disks. The ESP automates application of preservatives as well as DNA and other molecular probes to the collected samples to enable identification and quantification of particular species captured. In addition to archiving discrete samples for microscopy and nucleic acid and toxin analyses, the instrument also transmits results of probe assays in real-time to a remote location for data processing and interpretation. This capability provides an entirely new means of remotely detecting microorganisms in the environment, enabling water quality assessments in the absence of ship-based sample collection and time-consuming laboratory analysis.

The ESP is the result of four years of teamwork between MBARI scientists and engineers, under the leadership of Chris Scholin and Gene Massion. Although the current instrument is targeted at HAB research and issues related to the health of humans and marine wildlife, it is capable of emulating a wide variety of water quality measurements.

“The exciting results from the Gulf of Maine experiment are the culmination of four years of effort at MBARI in developing the capability for in situ detection of microrganisms in the marine environment using genetic probes,” said Marcia McNutt, MBARI president and CEO. “The fantastic teamwork between MBARI scientists and engineers was instrumental in harnessing a new technology to address a fundamental problem in marine research that also has important implications for human health. We are optimistic that the ESP will usher in a new era in our ability to understand the ecology of the microscopic life in the oceans.”

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Note: These images may not be copied, reprinted, or used without explicit permission from MBARI. Members of the media needing higher-resolution versions should send an email to pressroom@mbari.org.

Molecular biologist Chris Scholin at work in the laboratory. Photo: Mark Leet for MBARI (c) 1997


Mechanical Engineer Gene Massion working on the ESP. Photo by Todd Walsh (c) 2000 MBARI


The Environmental Sample Processor (ESP), top, which is enclosed in a housing for deployment at right. Photo: (c) 2000 MBARI.

For additional information or images relating to this article, please contact: Kim Fulton-Bennett
831-775-1835, kfb@mbari.org