How do you study microbial oceanography?

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The ESP has to house all the chemicals, containers, and computers of a full-sized lab. New versions will be able to work at cold temperatures and high pressures, with improved analytical functions.

The ocean's a tough place for humans to work. Traditionally, scientists sample from research vessels, and are limited to schedules that often prevent them from getting out to sea when exciting things happen. So they've invented an array of machines that stay behind to help collect and analyze data.

It boldly goes...

...where we can’t. The Environmental Sample Processor (ESP), about the size of a kitchen garbage can, is a portable molecular biology lab with a robotic technician.

When triggered, the ESP pulls two liters of seawater into a chamber where it's chemically treated and then tested by a series of robotic devices. The ESP can figure out what organisms are present and what they’re doing. (For example, an RNA test can look for a particular kind of harmful algae, and a protein test can learn how much toxin the algae is producing.)

Depending on how it's packaged, the ESP can sample in many environments for almost any planktonic organisms—from microbes to invertebrate larvae. Scientists have deployed the ESP on moorings and piers to look for organisms that impact human health, on the ocean bottom (more than 1000 meters down), and will soon combine the ESP with instruments that can drift with ocean currents or "porpoise" through the upper 300 meters of the ocean.

It takes a village

Or at least a team. And a very diverse one at that—members include electrical, mechanical and software engineers as well as biologists and oceanographers. The idea of an autonomous oceanic sampling device came to project leader, Chris Scholin, more than 10 years ago. Current and past CMORE researchers include Julie Robidart (who's using the ESP to investigate microbes involved in carbon and nitrogen cycling); Monika Frazier (a CMORE intern who developed its use in ascertaining water quality for human health); and Nilo Alvardo (who was involved with harmful algal research). Outside collaborations also include many academic and industrial partners including the University of California-Santa Cruz, Stanford, University of Hawaii, University of Georgia, Cal Tech, Harvard, MIT, University of South Carolina, Spyglass Inc., and McLane Research Laboratories.