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NCCOS Toxin Sensors Aboard Uncrewed Vehicle Interrogate Cyanobacterial Bloom in Lake Erie

Published on: 09/22/2021

Preparing the 3G-ESP for use on the Long-Range Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (LRAUV). Top left. NCCOS scientist inspects custom-fabricated microcystin sensor chip at Hollings Marine Laboratory, Charleston, SC. Top right. NCCOS and GLERL researchers conduct pre-deployment tests of microcystin sample preparation and analysis systems on 3G ESP at GLERL, Ann Arbor, MI. Middle left. NCCOS researcher holds surface plasmon resonance (SPR) microcystin sensor chip next to benchtop SPR unit used to test sensor performance specifications. Middle right. MBARI personnel execute electromechanical integration of 3G ESP instrument with LRAUV in preparation for deployment. Bottom left. MBARI and GLERL personnel conduct recovery of 3G ESP/LRAUV from Lake Erie following completed August 2021 mission. Bottom right. LRAUV underway on surface of Lake Erie preparing to dive during execution of HAB interrogation and sampling mission. Photo credits: C. Preston, J. Birch, MBARI; G. Doucette, M. Kent, NCCOS; R. Errera, GLERL.

NCCOS scientists and their partners at OAR’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) and Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML), Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR), recently achieved the first real-time HAB toxicity assessment by an uncrewed, subsurface vehicle carrying the 3rd Generation Environmental Sample Processor (3G-ESP).

Toxin sensors fabricated by NCCOS researchers were a key component of these real-time microcystin (MC) observations made by the 3G ESP onboard MBARI’s Long-Range Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (LRAUV) during a toxic cyanobacterial bloom in the western basin of Lake Erie.

Three NCCOS-developed, MC-specific surface plasmon resonance (SPR) sensor chips, coupled with MBARI’s newly redesigned embedded SPR module and customized sample acquisition/ preparation cartridges integrated with 3G-ESP, produced these first ‘on-the-fly’ quantitative MC measurements onboard the LRAUV during a two-week deployment in Lake Erie from 4-17 August, 2021.

A total of 17 discrete MC measurements confirmed the relatively low toxicity nature of the bloom over this time period. Highly coordinated, vessel-assisted water quality sampling (including MC) and airborne hyperspectral imagery contributed by GLERL and CIGLR, as well as satellite imagery from the NOAA Lake Erie HAB Bulletin, provided critical paired validation data and information on bloom location, intensity, and trajectory, respectively. A second MBARI sentinel LRAUV deployed during the first week of the mission also served to map the bloom distribution and guide sampling by the 3G ESP/LRAUV, which was especially useful given that cloud cover initially limited the availability of satellite images of the bloom.

In another first, NOAA personnel, trained previously by MBARI colleagues, successfully piloted the vehicle and adaptively executed bloom patch tracking and sampling missions on-the-fly during field operations. This key step towards transferring MBARI’s LRAUV technology will significantly enhance NOAA’s uncrewed systems (UxS) capabilities. In addition, archived samples collected and preserved autonomously by the 3G ESP/LRAUV will be used by GLERL, AOML, and CIGLR scientists for post-deployment ‘omics-based analyses of the bloom population. This information, along with the contextual data obtained from analysis of hand-collected samples, will aid in interpreting toxin data generated during the deployment and improve our understanding of factors contributing to bloom toxicity in Lake Erie.

This work was supported by an internal OAR award to GLERL under the Omics Initiative and internal NOS/NCCOS operational funds.

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