At 6:30 a.m., before summer crowds swarm the beach, Aydogan Ozcan and his research team arrive below the Santa Monica Pier. One researcher scoops up ocean water with a jar and inserts two small tubes, allowing the water to steadily flow into a sleek black box that is connected to a laptop.
As water flows through the device, images of phytoplankton appear on the laptop screen. Within minutes, they will be able to detect the presence of toxic algal blooms along the California coastline.
Ozcan, Chancellor’s Professor of electrical engineering at UCLA, has worked with his team over the past four years to create an inexpensive, portable device that can provide real-time data on the presence of harmful algae in a water sample. The device is a flow cytometer that provides color images of organisms in flowing water, which can help marine biologists identify both harmless and dangerous species of plankton.
“Our technology uses holography to see the microscopic outline of transparent organisms,” Ozcan said.
Although Ozcan’s flow cytometer is still just a prototype, it is smaller, approximately 5 inches on each side, and more efficient than models currently used in research. This is far more efficient than current devices, which are 10 times as large and up to 20 times the cost, Ozcan said.
The small size allows biologists to easily transport the device along the coastline, said Zoltán Göröcs, a UCLA electrical engineering researcher who worked on the project. The device also allows researchers to quickly analyze organisms in the water by providing high-resolution photos.
“Most devices now don’t even take an image, they just look for a scattering of light. Our technology doesn’t use any lenses, but we do what the lens normally does on the computer to get high-resolution images,” Göröcs said. “Overall, we have a good sweet spot compared to technologies currently on the market.”
Rebecca Shipe, an associate adjunct professor within the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA, said she currently studies algal blooms by collecting water samples and taking them all the way back to a lab to view them under a microscope. Ozcan’s device would allow her to collect digital images of microorganisms without relying on heavy lab equipment.
Shipe said it is difficult to predict and prevent harmful blooms, but studying them with devices like Ozcan’s can help biologists understand the factors that correlate with blooms. For example, we already know that they occur more frequently in the winter and spring, and concentrations of certain species peak in the early morning. With more research, biologists may be able to learn how industrial factors, such as fertilizer in runoff, affect algal blooms.
Göröcs said the device can be used in a variety of settings. So far, Ozcan and his team have focused on marine environments along the coast. Determining whether harmful plankton reside in the water can help biologists learn what environmental and industrial factors cause algal blooms. Göröcs said the device can also be used in fish hatcheries to prevent algal blooms from poisoning and killing farmed fish.
“Certain algae can kill all the fish in a farm overnight, and this can cause huge economic losses,” he said.
Increasing the speed and accuracy at which biologists can detect the presence of harmful algae could benefit both researchers and consumers, Shipe said. She added while most phytoplankton are harmless, some, particularly pseudo-nitzschia, create harmful toxins that bioaccumulate as they move up the food chain.
“By the time it gets to birds or mammals, they’re getting large quantities of the neurotoxin,” she said. “Then it can cause seizures, spontaneous abortions or death.”
Understanding where blooms occur and how they migrate with currents can also allow consumers to take preventative measures. Shipe said that when blooms are detected in a certain area, consumers should avoid certain seafoods. In particular, filter feeders such as clams and mussels should be avoided since they have higher concentrations of the toxins.
Although the device is still in the prototype phase, its ability to quickly produce high-resolution images at a lower price will greatly aid marine biologists in their work, Ozcan said. Understanding how, when and where harmful blooms occur could allow biologists to take preventative measures and reduce the detrimental effects of toxins.
“If everything goes well, the device will be widely used within a year,” said Ozcan.