Looking like a modern-day R2-D2 with its case removed, the Northwest Fisheries Science Center is proud to introduce the ESP – or Environmental Sample Processor – as the newest member of its fleet of state of the art scientific instruments. The ESP is a portable water laboratory that, once stationed in or near a body of water, will save our scientists the time of traveling into the field, collecting water samples, transporting them back to the lab, and then analyzing them. The ESP can do all that remotely and autonomously and then email the results in near-real time to the scientists sitting at their desks. The portable ESP was developed by microbiologist Chris Scholin and his team at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. After spending days out at sea collecting water samples and then weeks in the laboratory analyzing the samples using a microscope, Chris realized that there had to be a better way. The ESP uses DNA technology to detect the presence and quantity of water-borne organisms such as harmful algae, bacterial pathogens, and other species of scientific interest. It does this by collecting a sample of water, extracting the DNA in that sample, and passing the DNA over a surface that is primed to detect the presence of particular organisms. The ESP then sends an email to the scientist with an image of the results. If the dots on the primed surface are illuminated then the target species is present, and the brightness of the dots tells you how many organisms have been detected. By tailoring the DNA test to detect different organisms, the instrument can be customized to the specific needs of the scientists. It can be deployed in the water, tethered to a mooring buoy from a research vessel at sea or on a secure pier. From detecting harmful algal blooms or bacteria that can shut down shellfish farms, to identifying when larval fish or other vulnerable species are present, the ESP is an adaptive and responsive tool for understanding what is happening beneath the surface of waters like Puget Sound and the open ocean. Drs. Stephanie Moore and Mark Strom, scientists at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, are using the ESP to improve our ability to forecast blooms of harmful algae and bacteria that can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning and severe gastroenteritis, both endangering human health and reducing revenues of the shellfish industry. The ESP will be a core component of an integrated health early warning system that will provide real-time forecasting tools for public health managers and shellfish growers. The ESP brings together state of the art technological advances in robotics, DNA detection, and telecommunications and applies them to the fields of water monitoring and public health. This has the potential to dramatically change the way we monitor our marine environment. Today, if a sample collected using traditional monitoring practices does not meet the regulatory limits for human consumption, health authorities must act quickly to enact shellfish closures and prevent contaminated product from reaching the market. The ESP will allow us to be a step ahead of the harmful algae and bacteria because it provides near real-time information on which species are in the water and what they are doing. An early warning network of ESPs will allow for proactive management decisions, instead of simply being reactive. For example, shellfish growers can choose to harvest early in anticipation of a bloom and health authorities can increase monitoring of shellfish toxicity at sites where cells are detected. Based on this information, shellfish growing areas can be selectively opened or closed to reduce some of the economic impacts. The ESP promises to be a powerful tool for businesses and public health agencies. It will hone our understanding of what’s happening biologically under the surface and revolutionize the way shellfish farmers and public health authorities make decisions that are based on high quality science and near real-time in-situ observations. Keep up to date on this new technology at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center’s website: www.nwfsc.noaa.gov

Environmental Sample Processor
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