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Nation/World

May 20, 2013

'Laboratory in a can' monitors red tide off Maine

PORTLAND, Maine — Red tide monitoring is going high-tech with a robotic “laboratory in a can.”

A garbage can-size canister was deployed in late April in the ocean waters off southern Maine to collect and transmit data about toxin-producing algae blooms, known as red tides, that show up in the Gulf of Maine each spring.

Inside the canister is a pint-size robotic biology lab that extracts organisms from water samples, tests them for DNA and toxins, and transmits real-time data to shore by cellphone. Scientists say the apparatus will transform the way the harmful algal blooms are monitored and allow resource managers to better predict when and where red tide outbreaks might occur.

“This is one of the first steps in a major enhancement of red-tide monitoring,” said Don Anderson, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Falmouth, who has overseen development of the device.

One of the contraptions, called an environmental sample processor, was put in the ocean in late April. 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.

Anderson wants to have four of the processors in the Gulf of Maine next year. In time, he hopes to have a dozen of them at strategic points along the Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts coasts, as well as in Canada’s Bay of Fundy and on Georges Bank fishing grounds 60 miles east of Cape Cod.

The monitoring devices cost more than $200,000 each, but the price should come down as the technology is refined, Anderson said. Funding for the project comes from a number of sources, including the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Red tide blooms produce a toxin that clams, mussels and some other shellfish absorb, making them unsafe for humans to eat. In extreme cases, eating tainted shellfish can cause potentially fatal paralytic shellfish poisoning.

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