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Baltimore Harbor Watchman

How a FlowCytobot can help

Learn about the underwater camera that sees what we cannot

Are there toxins in the water?

The Imaging FlowCytobot, an underwater microscope, takes high-resolution pictures when it senses an organism—in real time!

Computer-imaging software identifies the organism similar to how your smart phone recognizes your face. The computer then counts the number of organisms and sends a warning when certain organisms become too abundant. This is important if the IFCB detects toxic algae!

Scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), who developed the automated underwater microscope, used it to detect a toxic bloom of Dinophysis in the Gulf of Mexico in February 2008. The discovery came in time for officials to issue a recall on shellfish ahead of a regional oyster festival.

Not all algal blooms are harmful, but some can produce toxins that can be deadly for fish, oysters and other aquatic life and also cause harm for humans who use the water or eat that aquatic life.

A 1997 outbreak of a harmful alga in Chesapeake Bay killed countless numbers of fish and devastated the state's seafood industry. St. Leonard’s Creek in the Patuxent River experienced "Black Tide," a non-toxic bloom, in June 2003. Karlodinium veneficum was detected there in amounts measuring 1.5 million cells per milliliter.

Karlodinium was found in Baltimore's Inner Harbor in 2005 (as shown below) and has been detected in the region every year since then. Daily monitoring of the cell concentrations of Karlodinium and the abundance of its favorite food, Cryptomonas, can help scientists predict when toxin will be produced and where fish kills may occur. Daily monitoring will also help scientists monitor for other algae species, such as Dinophysis and Alexandrium, which are toxic at lower concentrations that are harder for scientists to detect with traditional methods.

Annually in the Bay, large fishkills occur. These could be due to multiple causes but knowing what is in the water in real time, can help explain these events without conjecture.

Al Place
Harbor Watchman/Biochemist
A boat cruises over the same Karlodinium bloom, as seen from Baltimore's World Trade Center.
The highlighted area aims to show the size of a Karlodinium veneficumbloom in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, as seen from above on Sept. 16, 2005.
A scanning electron micrograph of Karlodinium veneficum cell attached to a prey cryptophyte in the process of ingestion. Photo by Vince Lovko

How does it work?

The Imaging FlowCytobot produces high-resolution images (about 3.4 pixels per micron) of suspended particles ranging in size, according to McLane Research Laboratories.

It works continously, sampling at a rate of 15 ml of water per hour. It only takes photos when it has something in its sights, but can generate as many as 30,000 images per hour. The FlowCytobot typically deploys for six months, in depths up to 40 meters. It can withstand water temperatures between 32 and 113 degrees Fahrenheit.

What does Al expect to see in the photos?

"We expect to see sex (algae mating), murder (algae eating other algae), and the 'Alien' (parasites bursting out of algae)." Watch the video above to see that "Alien" in action.

FlowCytobots Around the World