Researchers Seek To Develop Technology For Early Detection of Harmful Algal Blooms

Sandia National Laboratories researchers Todd Lane and Victoria VanderNoot have been awarded a research grant to develop a technology that can successfully detect deadly toxins from harmful algal blooms (HABs).

According to a Nov. 29 announcement, the funding is provided by the Cooperative Institute for Coastal and Estuarine Environmental Technology (CICEET), a partnership of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of New Hampshire.

Lane and VanderNoot, a molecular biologist and an analytical chemist, respectively, are both in the Biosystems Research department at Sandia's Livermore, Calif., site. Along with a small team of Sandia colleagues and external collaborators, they have started the research, which could lead to longer-term funding after the initial "proof-of-principle" work has been completed.

Harmful algal blooms are widely acknowledged to be a severe coastal resource management issue, adversely impacting virtually every coastal region. Current methods for detecting the poisonous toxins characteristic of the blooms are cumbersome, require either expensive reagents or animal testing, or are unable to quantify toxins -- critical information for managing shellfish beds. The technologies under development at Sandia could eliminate these problems, researchers said.

"Today's standard detection methods, frankly, are too slow and labor-intensive," Lane said. "By the time the process is complete, it's too late: the shellfish beds are already toxic."

The ability to quickly sample organisms low on the food chain, Lane said, can provide an early-warning system to help protect communities from exposure to toxins.

Most species of algae are not harmful and actually serve as the energy producers at the depths of the food web. The dense patches (or "blooms") that sometimes accumulate near the surface of the water, however, can produce potent neurotoxins that are then transferred through the food chain, accumulating in zooplankton and shellfish, eventually harming or even killing marine mammals and humans that consume tainted shellfish.

The Sandia research, which will focus on enhancing the early-warning capability of detection, is expected to lay the groundwork for the development of a reliable, cost-effective prototype to simultaneously analyze multiple HAB toxins in phytoplankton and/or shellfish in the field. Lane and his colleagues will strive to optimize the micro-separations process for a sub-set of relevant toxins, and establish the laboratory-based protocols for sample preparation.

The long-term goal, should the initial phase of the Sandia research go as planned, is to develop small, lightweight devices that could be used by oceanographers and marine biologists as part of their regular monitoring systems.

In addition to Lane and VanderNoot, collaborators include Donald M. Anderson, a senior scientist and director of the Coastal Ocean Institute, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute; and Gregg Langlois, marine biologist at the California Department of Health Services.

For additional information, contact Sandia at

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

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