Laboratory in a Can New Tool in Arsenal to Detect Red Tide

A sensor, known as an Environmental Sample Processor (ESP), described as a garbage can size canister, was launched in late April in the ocean waters off southern Maine to collect and transmit data about toxin-producing algae blooms, known as red tides. The sensor will also detect one of the potentially fatal toxins that the algal species produce. It will be taken out in mid June and replaced by another that will continue taking samples through the rest of the red tide season. A second sensor will be deployed in May.

The sensors contain a pint size robotic biology lab that extracts organisms from water samples, tests them for DNA and toxins, and instantly sends the information to shore by cellphone. The ESP’s are mounted to ocean buoys in the Gulf of Maine.

The new processors are intended to complement, not replace, existing red tide monitoring programs. State agencies now test for red tide in coastal shellfish areas, but there’s never been ongoing testing in waters miles offshore.

The first laboratory in a can was deployed off Maine in 2000. The idea was to find a way to retrieve test data from the ocean in a timely manner without actually going to sea.

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