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Technologies for plankton identification and monitoring

A recent article in ECO Magazine by Kira Coley of Planet Ocean provides a great overview of what’s happening in the world of plankton identification and monitoring technologies, especially how it relates to climate change. Thanks to many new advances, there’s now a suite of automated technology aimed at observing and measuring plankton in real time, from both above and below the surface waters.

Researchers have found that rising temperatures in the world’s oceans will affect carbon cycles as well as the abundance and function of the plankton on which most marine life feeds. Monitoring long-term variability of planktonic communities can also strengthen ecosystem response models.

Coley describes a couple of NASA projects. The first took place over 3 weeks during the summer of 2014. A team of marine and atmospheric scientists on the Ship-Aircraft Bio­Optical Research (SABOR) project worked together to address the optical issues associated with satellite observations of phytoplankton. The second project is from NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GTSS). They are attempting to figure out the problem of atmospheric particles that interfere with measurements while observing marine ecosystems from space.

Meanwhile, Coley explains that marine scientists and engineers are using the latest technological innovations to develop in-situ automated sensors that help monitor and profile plankton from below. This equipment helps scientists to better understand the environmental factors and effects on plankton community dynamics.

There’s also acoustic backscatter, a non-intrusive technique for the monitoring of suspended sediment particles in the water column. By measuring acoustic backscatter returns at multiple ultrasonic frequencies, the presence and abundance of zooplankton and fish can be quantified.

Coley notes that the development of flow cytometry was a breakthrough for microscopic analysis. It wasn’t until the 1980s, however, that it was applied to phytoplankton research. Unlike a microscope, a flow cytometer offers automated quantification of set parameters for several thousand particles every second. This technology has reduced the time it takes to manually count and characterize individual phytoplankton.

The FlowCAM from Fluid Imaging Technologies builds on the principals of flow cytometry by adding high-resolution digital imaging. The dynamic imaging particle analysis system acquires and stores a digital image of each particle detected. Different particle types in a heterogeneous sample can be automatically identified, differentiated, and quantified. This technology also can be utilized for monitoring harmful algal blooms (HAB) and population size estimates from the identification of the larvae from invasive species. The technology successfully analyzes plankton of a particular size range (3 µm to 2,000 µm diameters).

Hannah Joy-Warren Stanford University using FlowCam

The FlowCam can capture thousands of images of plankton cells in minutes. With some 30 parameters being measured with each image (length, width, area, biovolume, and various shapes), the plankton community of a sample can be quickly assessed. 

FlowCAM_images of phytoplankton

Coley's article is more in-depth.  The examples here are just a few of the new technologies available for research and monitoring of ecological communities. The opportunities that technology can now offer will allow for a greater understanding of plankton ecology, HAB, and invasive species management as well as the advancement of ecosystem response models to climate change.

Read the full ECO article.


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Topics: Marine Research, Aquatic Research