COLLEGE STATION, August 2, 2002 - Oceanographer Lisa Campbell thinks waiting until dead fish wash up on the beach is too late to identify the onset of toxic "red tides" in the Gulf of Mexico. What is needed is an early-warning system to detect the presence of the tiny toxic algae before they reach bloom proportions.
Campbell, a professor in the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University, has received a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to photograph the algae using a computer-controlled video camera linked to a flow cytometer and microscope system. With the expertise of co-principal investigator Norman Guinasso of Texas A&M's Geochemical and Environmental Research Group (GERG), the innovative FlowCAM, will provide continuous monitoring, mounted on a new buoy as part of the Texas Automated Buoy System (TABS).
Harmful algal blooms, known locally as red tides, occur unpredictably in the Gulf of Mexico and result in fish kills and, sometimes, human illnesses. The goal of NOAA's Monitoring and Event Response for Harmful Algal Blooms (MERHAB) program is to develop new technologies for detecting harmful algae.
"Having the FlowCAM moored to a buoy off the coast will allow us to secure black and white visual images of the water column and examine them for the presence of particular organisms," Campbell said. "The advantage of this system is that the instrument automatically draws in a sample through its imaging microscope and stores the image on the computer.
"Because the camera system is computerized, we'll be able to teach it to use pattern-recognition software to pick out images of particular species during continuous operation," she explained. "This technology will make our job easier, since it's impossible for a human researcher to count continuously."
The images will be sent back to lab via cell phone.
"We'll be able to identify species of algae and to learn more about the community structure of the plankton," Campbell continued. "We'll especially be looking for Karenia brevis individuals, the species that causes the red tides."
This data telemetry system is part of the existing TABS buoy system directed by Guinasso. The FlowCAM and software were engineered by Christian Sieracki of Fluid Imaging Technologies, Inc. (East Boothbay, Maine).
Campbell's MERHAB work is an extension of her use of flow cytometry to study picophytoplankton, the ocean's smallest plants.
Ed Buskey at the University of Texas Marine Sciences Institute has a laboratory version of the FlowCAM. This is the only submersible, field version of the instrument in Texas. Campbell, Guinasso and Buskey will collaborate in the first field tests of the system.
In addition to the NOAA grant, Campbell has received matching funds from the College of Geosciences, the Texas General Land Office (TGLO) and the Office of the Vice President of Research at Texas A&M.
"Once we have perfected our techniques of imaging and classifying the different phytoplankton encountered by the buoy, we'll be able to use our methods for other species besides those which cause the red tides," Campbell said. "And the system will allow us to build a data archive to later query and analyze, so we can study phytoplankton community structure more closely.
"But perhaps our greatest hope is that by allowing continuous sampling and detection in the field, the combination of the TABS buoys and the FlowCAM will allow us to predict deadly red tides earlier. Early warning is the best way to mitigate potential harmful effects of Red Tides."
The above story is based on materials provided by Texas A&M University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
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