September 20, 2004
UCSC researchers to test new technologies for monitoring toxic algae in California
By Tim Stephens
Researchers at UC Santa Cruz have received a $400,000 grant from the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to develop an improved system
for monitoring toxic algae in the coastal waters of California. The UCSC researchers
will work closely with the California Department of Health Services (CDHS),
testing new technologies and developing protocols for using them as part of
the state's ongoing program of monitoring marine biotoxins to ensure the safety
of fish and shellfish harvested along the coast.
"The current system is working, but it is labor intensive. New technologies
are available that could make the system for ensuring seafood safety more efficient
and more cost-effective," said Peter Miller, a researcher in UCSC's Institute
of Marine Sciences and principal investigator on the project.
The grant from NOAA's Monitoring and Event Response for Harmful Algal Blooms
(MERHAB) program provides crucial support for the extensive field testing and
validation needed before new methods can be incorporated into the state's monitoring
program, Miller said.
The grant initiates a planned five-year, $2 million effort by NOAA's MERHAB
program to engage key academic and state agency partners in developing harmful
algal bloom detection and tracking tools at intensive study sites in Marin,
Monterey, and San Luis Obispo Counties. UCSC and CDHS, the state agency charged
with ensuring seafood safety, are coleading this effort to implement an economically
sustainable harmful algal bloom monitoring plan for the California coastline.
Two toxins produced by different kinds of microscopic marine algae, or phytoplankton,
are of particular concern on the West Coast. Both are potent neurotoxins, causing
the syndromes known as paralytic shellfish poisoning and amnesic shellfish poisoning.
When there are large numbers of toxin-producing algae in the water, filter-feeders
such as mussels and other shellfish accumulate the toxins in their tissues.
Anchovies and sardines can also accumulate the toxins, mostly in their guts.
Consumption of tainted shellfish can lead to severe illness and even death.
Along the California coast, harmful algal blooms routinely poison and kill sea
lions, sea otters, and other marine animals, and cause economic harm by forcing
the closure of affected fisheries.
The existing CDHS monitoring program relies primarily on routine analysis of
shellfish samples to detect toxins before they reach dangerous levels. A statewide
network of volunteers, many of them from local public health agencies, collects
samples and sends them to a central laboratory for toxin analysis. The toxin
analysis is expensive, however, and the process of collecting, shipping, and
testing samples is time-consuming, said Gregg Langlois, a marine biologist with
CDHS who oversees the agency's marine biotoxin monitoring program.
"We need better tools to do this more efficiently and to get information
more quickly," Langlois said.
Several types of diagnostic test kits are now available that allow rapid detection
of toxins in the field. The kits could be used for prescreening of shellfish
samples, enabling technicians in the field to weed out toxin-free samples that
would otherwise be shipped to the central lab and put through a costly and time-consuming
analysis. Laboratory analysis could then focus on determining how much toxin
is present in positive samples, Langlois said.
There are also new laboratory-based techniques for analysis of water samples
using molecular probes to rapidly detect the algal species that produce the
toxins and measure their abundance. Remote sensing technologies, such as satellite
observations and radar tracking of surface currents, offer the potential to
locate and track major blooms of toxin-producing algae and predict where they
Using the best available remote sensing data in conjunction with field data
provided by the volunteer force may provide an early warning system and enable
tracking of bloom events in real time along the California coast, Miller said.
This information can then guide decisions about when and where to intensify
monitoring efforts in the field.
"The power of this approach is that it paves the way for the network of
program participants, including fishermen, aquaculturists, and volunteers with
oversight from CDHS, to prescreen samples in the field using new technologies,"
The UCSC-led MERHAB program will establish pilot project sites where these
new technologies are evaluated and incorporated into an intensive monitoring
program. In addition to Miller and Langlois, the project's leaders include UCSC
faculty Mary Silver, a professor of ocean sciences who has been studying harmful
algal blooms since the early 1990s, and Raphael Kudela, an assistant professor
of ocean sciences with expertise in remote sensing.
Miller noted that the program was jointly conceived and developed by CDHS and
UCSC scientists. This kind of collaboration between a state
agency and academic researchers, with funding from a federal
agency, is an effective way to bring cutting-edge research to
bear on practical issues of public health policy, he said.
Langlois said he will be focusing on the "grassroots"
element of the program, making sure that any new field procedures
added to the monitoring program will not be too burdensome for
the volunteer network and that there are clear-cut protocols
for using them.
"You have to have criteria for deciding when you will burn a $20 test
kit, so we need to evaluate these new tools in the field and develop protocols
and a decision-tree for implementing them," Langlois said.
"We also need to make it simple and easy for the volunteers, and it has
to be fun," he added. "It can be fun, and that keeps
people involved in the program."
Partners in the project include the Monterey Bay National Marine
Sanctuary, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Moss Landing
Marine Laboratories, and NOAA Fisheries Southeast.
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