Skip to content

MBARI technology plays key role in new sustainable ocean management strategy

MBARI’s Environmental Sample Processor (ESP) is a versatile “lab in a can” that can be used to collect environmental DNA (eDNA) and study aquatic ecosystems. Image: Todd Walsh © 2018 MBARI

MBARI technology plays key role in new sustainable ocean management strategy

An MBARI researcher with short black hair wearing a navy-blue long-sleeved shirt with the white MBARI logo and white rubber gloves examines a clear plastic tube of fluid with his right hand while holding a white tube of fluid with his left hand. To the left are four robotic samplers with a mix of silver metal parts, multi-colored wires, and other instrumentation. On the black counter in the foreground are several silver metal pucks and a clear tube with a blue lid.
MBARI researchers have developed innovative tools to collect eDNA to assess and track the health of aquatic ecosystems. Image: Lori Eanes © Monterey Bay Aquarium

Environmental DNA (eDNA) allows scientists to detect the presence of aquatic species from the tiny bits of organic material—cells, skin, waste, and mucus—they leave behind. This genetic soup allows us to study marine life even when organisms are not physically present. It also offers clues about biodiversity changes in sensitive areas, the presence of rare or endangered species, and the spread of invasive species—all critical to understanding, promoting, and maintaining a healthy ocean.

MBARI has long been a leader in developing technology that allows scientists and researchers to collect aquatic eDNA, study how life in the sea is changing, and assess what the impacts of those changes might be. For example, MBARI’s Environmental Sample Processor (ESP) allows us to collect and analyze water samples on board the instrument to quickly identify the presence of organisms or biological toxins. Using this “lab in a can,” scientists can analyze the sample in real time or preserve it for future study.

MBARI’s long-range autonomous vehicle (LRAUV) is another way we use technology to access and share important data about ocean health. Designed by MBARI engineers, this innovative robot explores, maps, and monitors the ocean. Paired with the Environmental Sample Processor, it can detect the DNA fingerprints of marine life. A new commercial licensing agreement with Saab, Inc. is expanding access to this remarkable platform, and with that, opportunities to build on MBARI’s eDNA collection capabilities.

eDNA offers a powerful, non-destructive, cost-effective opportunity to monitor life in aquatic environments, including freshwater rivers, streams, lakes, and the ocean. We are encouraged to see eDNA technology featured in the new National Aquatic Environmental DNA Strategy recently released by the White House Office of Science, Technology, and Policy as part of a larger effort to advance sustainable ocean management. We applaud the members of the MBARI team who lent their expertise to help advance and inform this strategy. The plan elevates eDNA as an important tool for mapping and monitoring biodiversity and calls for increased collaboration among public and private agencies to improve and advance eDNA research and operations.

Collaboration is central to MBARI’s work. Through partnerships with federal agencies, academic institutions, and communities, we are sharing MBARI’s innovative robotic samplers to help others leverage the power of eDNA for science, conservation, and resource management. Our engineering and technology will be integral to advancing the national eDNA strategy, understanding the impacts of climate change, and building a sustainable ocean economy. We look forward to continuing our work with both public and private partners to drive solutions that support ocean health.

Research Publications:
Kelly, R.P., D.M. Lodge, K.N. Lee, S. Theroux, A.J. Sepulveda, C.A. Scholin, J.M. Craine, E.A. Allan, K.M. Nichols, K.M. Parsons, K.D. Goodwin, Z. Gold, F.P. Chavez, R.T. Noble, C.L. Abbott, M.R. Baerwald, A.M. Naaum, P.M. Thielen, A.L. Simons, C.L. Jerde, J.J. Duda, M.E. Hunter, J.A. Hagan, R.S. Meyer, J.A. Steele, M.Y. Stoeckle, H.M. Bik, C.P. Meyer, E. Stein, K.E. James, A.C. Thomas, E. Demir-Hilton, M.A. Timmers, J.F. Griffith, M.J. Weise, and S.B. Weisberg. 2024. Toward a national eDNA strategy for the United States. Environmental DNA, 6: e432.

Preston, C., K. Yamahara, D. Pargett,  C. Weinstock, J. Birch, B. Roman, S. Jensen, B. Connon, R. Jenkins, J. Ryan, and C. Scholin. 2024. Autonomous eDNA collection using an uncrewed surface vessel over a 4200-km transect of the eastern Pacific Ocean. Environmental DNA, 6: e468.

Truelove, N.K., N.V. Patin, M. Min, K.J. Pitz, C.M. Preston, K.M. Yamahara, Y. Zhang, B. Raanan, B. Kieft, B. Hobson, L.R. Thompson, K.D. Goodwin, and F.P. Chavez. 2022. Expanding the temporal and spatial scales of environmental DNA research with autonomous sampling. Environmental DNA, 4: 972–984.

For additional information or images related to this news story, please email