Marine Pathogen Rapid Detection Project

The Environmental Sample Processor allows scientists to monitor sea water for harmful pathogens on site.  The robotic "laboratory" analyses the genetics and toxicity of organisms in the water and uses a radio signal to transmit the data to shore.  ((c) 2006 MBARI)

Human health issues related to water quality often surface at the land-sea interface.  Coastal beaches are both subject to heavy human activity and susceptible to microbial contamination.  In an effort to improve coastal water quality monitoring, Center for Ocean Solutions affiliated researchers at Stanford University and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) have launched a project to rapidly detect pathogens in seawater using MBARI’s Environmental Sample Processor, or ESP.

The ESP is a robotic underwater molecular biology lab that can automatically collect water samples and then extract genetic material and other compounds from the microorganisms in the water.  Using this genetic material, the ESP conducts molecular-based measurements to identify the microbe species and toxin abundance in the sample and transmits results to the laboratory via radio signals.  This in-situ process shortens the 24-hour period usually needed to culture and analyze microbes in the laboratory to a few hours, greatly improve beach monitoring and notification for fecal indicator bacteria. 

Monica Frazier, a C-MORE summer intern from UH, Manoa modifies the ESP to automate water quality measurements at MBARI. (Photo: Todd Walsh (c) 2009 MBARI)

The ESP’s automated technology is also important for identifying the constituents and monitoring the toxicity levels of harmful algal blooms. Harmful algal blooms are considered to be increasing not only in their global distribution but also in the frequency, duration and severity of their effects. These toxic blooms cause damage to coastal ecosystem health and pose threats to humans as well as marine life.  Climate change is expected to exacerbate this trend since many critical processes that govern harmful algal bloom dynamics, such as water temperature and ocean circulation, are influenced by climate.

R&D Magazine recognized the ESP as one of the 100 most technologically significant products introduced into the marketplace during 2008, recognizing its capability to improve long-term environmental assessments and water quality measurements.  With their unique ability to monitor a variety of aquatic microorganisms in real time, such systems could be used in many applications at the land-sea interface, ranging from environmental monitoring and waste-water treatment to homeland security.