Most people are unaware of Harmful Algal (HA) species, yet worldwide they have affected virtually everyone who has lived along or visited a coastline. When HA blooms develop, it can lead to adverse human health impacts, fish kills, marine mammal strandings and die-offs. In the United States, HA blooms cause about $82 million in economic losses to the seafood, restaurant, and tourism industries each year. As well as the potential health impacts on humans and marine life, they can also create dead zones in the oceans through resource depletion, and even push up domestic water prices where reservoir sources affected by blooms are impacted by increased filtration and treatment costs.
An example of a HA species is the diatom Pseudo-nitzschia, found in Monterey Bay, which produces a neurotoxin – domoic acid (DA) that enters the food chain via shellfish and other small fish. Pseudo-nitzschia spp. are cosmopolitan in distribution and blooms may or may not contain toxigenic species, requiring additional lab-based analysis to assess risks.
Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) post-doctoral fellow, Holly Bowers, is trying to reduce the impact of this neurotoxin on the Californian coastline. Currently, to identify if the organisms that produce DA are present, Holly and her team have to collect samples, return these to the lab on shore and run PCR to determine if they are present.
“Currently we have boat days where we bring back whole water to shore and use the microscope to assess whether our bug of interest is there or not. We will use the Freedom4 in the field to assess presence in near real-time as we collect samples,” Holly says.
While this will save valuable time and resources for Holly and her team, being able to test out in the field will also enable them to improve risk assessments for regional monitoring programs and scale to other target HA species of concern (e.g. dinoflagellates, cyanobacteria).
The key to understanding these adverse events is to holistically study their occurrence. To that end, MBARI employs a multitude of technologies and expertise to identify species and assess toxin production in relation to hydrography and anthropogenic influences in the area. The addition of the Freedom4 platform will amplify these efforts.
Ubiquitome is running a grants program for research groups who would benefit from a mobile qPCR device. Holly Bowers has been chosen as one of the finalists. To find out more about the program and view the other finalists, visit the website here.