The oceans are vast soups, rich with microbial life. To study the ingredients in this soup, researchers need to concentrate microbes, oftentimes by filtering large quantities of water. What remains on the filter — e.g., single-cell organisms, cellular debris, environmental DNA, can be subjected to molecular biology techniques and provide a window into who or what lives in that particular ecosystem. Thus, all understanding starts with the simple act of filtering water. Yet, filtering water for later microbial analysis is surprisingly difficult to perform without a human to change filters or clean lines between samples.

More difficult still is to take those filters and robotically apply molecular biology techniques in order to identify particular organisms or the substance they might produce.

In the SURF Center (Sensors: Underwater Research of the Future), we work on developing robots that can repeatedly sample water volumes and preserve what is collected. Additionally, we have developed robots that can perform molecular biology analysis on these samples, providing near real-time results to questions of who/what is present in the environment. This instrument, called the Environmental Sample Processor (ESP) is a robotic water sampler and processor and has been deployed in various configurations around the world. Originally developed for the detection of harmful algae blooms and the toxins they produce, the ESP has been shown to reliably collect and preserve environmental DNA.



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