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Friday, June 24, 2022

New underwater robots help researchers study Monterey Bay and beyond

Moss Landing – Monterey Bay is now home to robotic lab assistants who collect aquatic DNA for researchers to analyze onshore.

Researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have developed a new underwater robot that collects DNA samples floating in the ocean. That DNA could help researchers understand the animals, plants and microbes that inhabit Monterey Bay and the ocean beyond.

Kobun Trulov, an oceanographer at MBARI who led the team, said, “We are exploring new ways to access these ocean ecosystems and understand how everything from microbes to whales is responding to changes in the environment. “

Living beings often leave traces of DNA in their environment, which scientists can use to track them. The process is like using forensic science to determine who was at the crime scene. “We’re extracting the DNA, and then we’re mixing it with this bank of suspects,” said Francisco Chavez, a researcher at MBARI who worked on the project.

MBARI researchers launched a long-range autonomous underwater vehicle in Monterey Bay. (Photo by Kim Fulton-Bennett for MBARI)

Like the criminal database, the list of aquatic suspects is incomplete. Scientists know how to recognize the DNA sequences of many of the usual suspects, such as anchovies and krill. If those organisms have recently visited a region, they will come back as hits from the list of known DNA sequences. But many marine species have not yet made it to the database. “Every day we find out that some of the sequences we find, we don’t know what they are because no one has actually sequenced that organism,” Chavez said.

Researchers have been using environmental DNA to study the ocean for years. But before that he had to go out on a ship to collect samples. This made it difficult for deep sea storks to reach or hang out for long periods and collect DNA. And it’s expensive to send a ship out for each ocean secret.

That’s where this new robot comes in. They can be launched from a small boat just offshore or from a dock and they have enough juice to make it from Monterey to Hawaii. It can collect and preserve dozens of DNA samples and return them to researchers for further analysis.

The abundance and mysterious depths of Monterey’s sea creatures make it an excellent testing ground for this technique. “We’re very fortunate to have something that’s the size of the Grand Canyon, but very underwater right on our doorstep,” Trulov said. “It creates such a very beautiful and mysterious area that is still poorly understood on so many levels.”

Monterey Bay is already home to a marine microphone that records the sounds of sea creatures – Trulov calls it an “underwater fish finder.” Chavez said that the microphone caught “beautiful streaks of creatures that surface at night.” But researchers can’t tell which organisms participate in that migration with their sounds. This new robot could follow that night’s stay and help researchers identify its participants.

This technology will also make it easier to track Monterey Bay’s health. Robots can identify and monitor the toxic algal blooms that sometimes arise. And they could help scientists track endangered species and keep tabs on invasive species as the gulf changes over time. “Ocean temperatures are warming,” Trulov said. “How is this going to change the cast of characters coming to Monterey Bay?”

But these robots will help researchers understand the ocean beyond Monterey Bay as well. “One of the missions here is to try to work to make sure that this technology is transferred to the people,” Chavez said.

Researchers are also hoping to streamline this process. Right now, the robot collects samples of DNA and brings them back to a landowner’s lab for sequencing. In the future, the team hopes to equip the drone with all the tools it needs to sequence the DNA it collects and bring its findings back to the ground.

Chavez is excited for robots to help him understand and appreciate life at sea. “The ocean is sometimes out of sight, out of mind – you just see the surface of it,” he said. “This new capability will shed light on what is happening not only here in Monterey, but at sea at large.”

World Nation News Desk
World Nation News Deskhttps://worldnationnews.com/
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