Editorial Feature

Autonomous Robot Goes Fishing for Toxic Algae

Researchers at Stanford University have run a successful test on a robotic sensor designed to identify toxic algae and bacteria that contaminates seafood.

If integrated into the food industry on a larger scale, this robotic technology could save this  industry a substantial amount of money to help clean up this problem and could help resolve the negative ecological impact this has on the surrounding environment.

The research conducted by Stanford University has been based in Puget Sound, an area in the Pacific Northwest where there is an abundance of highly sought-after seafood. However, this location has  been home to industrial sites since the 1850’s, which has resulted in a concerning level of pollution residing in this area due to pesticides and industrial chemicals leached from nearby manufacturing sites.

Although prevention and clean-up are the main strategies for making seafood safer, new efforts to transform the way waterways are monitored for toxicants is becoming apparent with the emergence of sea-faring robot technology. It is challenging for scientists to identify the toxins responsible for contaminating seafood before this food reaches the markets, which does hold a serious health concern for consumers.

The Environmental Sample Processor, or ESP, shown here without its protective casing, is an autonomous water-sampling robot that detects microorganisms using DNA probes and remotely relays the results to scientists over the Internet. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The current robotic technology designed and tested in July 2013 in Puget Sound can identify early signs of algae bloom and waters occupied with bacteria in a real-time manner which avoids any delays in the analysis of contaminated seafood.

With standard testing methods for the identification waterborne toxins typically taking up to 2 days, the new robotic sensor technology now offers a faster and more precise alternative. The environmental Sample Processor (EPS) – developed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) - is an automated instrument designed to analyze water samples in real-time. A substantial amount of effort to help develop this technology has come from Dr. Chris Scholin at MBARI with help from Dr. Kevan Yamahara, Stanford University.

The EPS extracts water and identifies any microbes that occupy this water. Identification of any microbial cells is then followed by treatment of this sample using an on-board lab using chemicals to unravel DNA. The separated DNA material is then used to identify the origin of the microbial sample and a calculation of exactly how much of this sample occupies the waters.

The main point of locating toxic algae using this technology is to try and help identify exactly when an algae bloom is likely to form into a full bloom in water occupying seafood, making this an attractive warning system for fishermen alerting them to make better decision on how to harvest seafood and to avoid distributing contaminated products to the market.


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