(This article was originally published on OceanLines on August 25, 2008.)
An automated underwater microscope detected an unexpected harmful bloom of toxic algae in the Gulf of Mexico back in February. The early warning gave officials time to recall shellfish and close down shellfish harvesting in time to prevent anyone from getting sick.
The microscope, called the Imaging FlowCytobot, was developed by scientists Rob Olson and Heidi Sosik from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). It was designed to be a basic research tool to monitor the flow of microscopic plant and animal life in the ocean. It sits underwater photographing and calculating numbers of plankton all hours of the day for several months at a time while relaying the information back to shore through a fiber-optic cable.
The FlowCytobot is a laser-based system. It can “see” single cells by the red light that the chlorophyll emits when it is exposed to blue or green light.
In the fall of 2007, Sosik and Olson worked with biological oceanographer Lisa Campbell at Texas A&M University to deploy the Imaging FlowCytobot in the Gulf of Mexico to look for seasonal blooms of toxic algae called Karenia brevis. This algae builds up in filter-feeding shellfish and can be harmful to humans when consumed.
In February, Campbell began to notice the Cytobot detecting high levels of another toxic algae, Dinophysis acuminata, which can cause nausea, vomiting, cramping, and diarrhea in people who consume the toxic shellfish.
“We had never before observed a bloom of Dinophysis acuminata at such levels in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Campbell.
Soon after the discovery, Texas officials closed down shellfish harvesting and recalled Texas oysters, clams, and mussels. No shellfish-related sickness was reported, proving the Imaging FlowCytobot a success.
“We were looking for Karenia brevis and weren’t expecting to find a bloom of something else,” said Sosik. “No one would have necessarily looked for this algae until after people had gotten sick.”
Campbell says that the Imaging FlowCytobot is “exactly what an early warning system should be, it should detect a bloom before people get sick.”
Sosik and Olson were recently awarded funding from the National Oceanographic Partnership Program to develop a version of the Imaging FlowCytobot for commercial use.
Copyright © 2008 by OceanLines