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Classical surveillance of marine and estuarine environments for harmful microorganisms is labor-intensive and expensive. This often results in reduced sampling frequency, particularly in remote areas with limited access, which can increase the likelihood of missing a "bloom" event. The ESP represents a significant advance in biological sensing systems. It is an autonomous, in situ, sampling and analysis unit that employs DNA-based technology to detect microorganisms in water samples. The entire process, from sample collection through results delivery via telemetry, can occur in as little as 3 hours. The ESP can detect toxin-producing harmful algae such as Alexandrium, a producer of potent biotoxins that cause the potentially deadly disease paralytic shellfish poisoning, as well as fish-killing harmful algae (e.g., Heterosigma).
Future research activities will expand the ability of the ESP to enable near real-time detection of bacterial species that are known human pathogens (e.g., Vibrio parahaemolyticus) and indicators of fecal contamination (e.g., Bacteriodes spp.). Like the assays currently used to detect harmful algae on the ESP, these assays are also DNA-based but they differ in that they utilize a quantitative polymerase chain reaction to quantify the number of copies of each target species present in the water. With these expanded capabilities, the ESP will be used to enhance ecological forecasting of harmful algae and pathogens.