Monitoring harmful algae in coastal waters

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This innovative project aims to test a new technology (flow cytometry) for its ability to enhance and supplement traditional methods of detecting harmful marine algae.

Toxic phytoplankton species can accumulate in shellfish destined for human consumption. This can have a potentially negative impact on public health. This means that toxic phytoplankton are closely monitored in coastal waters. Shellfish production is a substantial part of the Dorset economy, as Poole Harbour is a major site of oyster and mussel production. Numerous harmful algae have been detected locally, sometimes resulting in shellfishery closure which can have a serious economic impact. Legislative bodies such as the European Union require member states to monitor both the presence and distribution of toxin-producing marine phytoplankton or harmful algal blooms (HABs) in shellfish harvesting areas.

The current method to assess harmful algae in UK coastal waters is microscopy, which is a relatively labour intensive method and doesn’t provide frequent data. Despite phytoplankton monitoring programmes and considerable international scientific collaboration, the understanding of HAB formation is still poorly characterised. This highlights the need for a more automated and frequent sampling approach.

As an analytical tool flow the measurements of cell characteristics (cytometry) is being used more often in aquatic microbiology and has the potential to detect and count potentially toxic phytoplankton species by assessing the light scatter and fluorescence of the cells. In this project a number of phytoplankton species will be grown in the laboratory (Alexandrium, Pseudonitzschia and Prorocentrum) in order to calibrate a relatively cheap flow cytometer (Accuri C6). The presence of species will then be monitored in water samples from a local shellfish harvesting area such as Poole Harbour and compared to microscope counts.

The study will evaluate the use of flow cytometry as a  tool to provide an affordable early warning system for potentially toxic cells. This project will enable more trust in the safety of shellfish production, by improving the efficiency which shellfish are assessed safely. BU will build a regional network which will assist this local economic sector and feed into national monitoring efforts. The project therefore represents a strong sector-specific theme which will create a regional and national network of expertise in assessing shellfish food safety.

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