Irish scientists collaborate with NOAA to test new HABscope

 

A HABscope, a microscope with an attached iPod using artificially intelligent software, is currently being tested by scientists from the Marine Institute and NUI Galway to detect harmful algal bloom species (HABs) in Irish waters.

The pilot study is part of an international collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the USA.   

The HABscope was recently used on board the Marine Institute’s RV Celtic Voyager as part of a dedicated harmful phytoplankton survey (DINO21) in the Celtic Sea led by Dr Robin Raine of NUI, Galway. Data collected from this pilot study will contribute to the PhD research being conducted by Catherine Jordan from NUI, Galway as part of the Marine Institute’s Cullen Scholarship Programme.

Ocean colour satellite imagery, combined with the HABscope system, provides scientists with a ‘bird’s eye view’ of the ocean and may provide early detection and monitoring of phytoplankton blooms. Daily imagery is used to track the bloom’s movement using specifically designed algorithms which calculate the reflectance of light off the ocean surface.

The HABscope, developed by NOAA with funding from NASA, consists of a microscope with an iPod attached, embedded with artificially intelligent software to identify the swimming pattern of the phytoplankton Karenia. Results are returned instantly on whether the genre of phytoplankton is present in the water sample.

Ms Catherine Jordan said “When phytoplankton appear in high numbers, and depending on the type of phytoplankton, they can produce green and dark red hues in the water known as 'algal blooms'. As these blooms can sometimes be visible from space, satellites provide a useful tool in monitoring the location and extent of these blooms. In most cases phytoplankton blooms are of benefit to the ecosystem, but a small proportion of phytoplankton species produce toxins which may affect other marine life.

“This is the first time that the HABscope has been tested outside of the Unites States,” Ms Jordan added. “Using the HABscope alongside satellite technology may help to provide early wide-scale warnings of the presence of harmful algal blooms. HABS can have an impact on industries such as aquaculture, fisheries and tourism, so it is important to be able to detect, monitor, track and forecast the development and movement of HABs in real-time.”

Karenia mikimotoi is a naturally occurring phytoplankton species which occasionally can form dense blooms off the Irish coast. These “Red-Tides” can sometimes cause the seawater to discolour and can even result in localised mortality of a range of marine animals.

The Marine Institute monitors our coastal waters for this species as part of the National Phytoplankton Monitoring Programme. It is thought Karenia overwinter in low numbers as motile cells and when favourable conditions arrive in early to late summer they can form these blooms.

As part of the recent survey on board the RV Celtic Voyager, Karenia was detected offshore in one area at a cell density of 250,000 cells per litre in a thin sub-surface layer, analogous to an underwater cloud. The HABscope was used successfully with samples from this layer and its performance is currently being evaluated.

Despite causing occasional impacts on marine animals, Karenia has no impact on human health and is a common species in Irish coastal waters at this time of the year. The Marine Institute programme analyses water samples from around the coast of Ireland to identify any harmful or nuisance phytoplankton, and to monitor their impact on shellfish and finfish in particular.