2011 Environmental sample processor Far West

Molecular probe technologies are commonly used in the ocean sciences to identify specific organisms and reveal their genomic potential; but such work generally requires returning samples to a laboratory for analysis. “Ecogenomic sensors” were conceptualized as devices that would obviate the strict requirement for sample return by allowing for biomolecular analyses to occur autonomously in situ. Researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)/National Ocean Service Marine Biotoxins Laboratory, and partners comprising the Center for Microbial Oceanography Research and Education have given life to this concept through refinement and application of MBARI’s Environmental Sample Processor (ESP).

The ESP consists of three major components: the core sample processor (or core ESP), external sampling module, and add-on analytical modules such as the PCR device developed by LLNL. Data produced by the PCR module enables researchers to better detect low copy number genes that are associated with harmful or toxic organisms, or that are important in modulating biogeochemical cycles relevant to how microbes may respond to climate change. Scientists estimate that the world ocean is absorbing about one-third of the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels, gradually causing seawater to become more acidic. As part of Earth’s carbon cycle, species of microscopic marine algae take up large quantities of carbon dioxide and release oxygen. By studying the genetic makeup of these species, scientists can learn how microbes remove carbon from the atmosphere and cope with the increasing acidity of oceans.

Spyglass Biosecurity, Inc., was awarded licenses from MBARI and LLNL. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and NOAA have ordered the first commercial units. The small business, founded in 2007, is a privately held corporation with headquarters in San Francisco, California, and an operations center in Marina, California.

There is worldwide interest in using ESPs to study ecological relationships among the thousands of marine microbe species, to detect harmful microbes and toxins for monitoring water quality and managing water resources, and to explore other areas of extreme environments. Data gained from ESP research will likely help scientists improve their understanding of Earth’s oceanic processes, many of which are strongly influenced by microbial communities.
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Far West