press, company & team
Recently, the University of Hawai'i Press featured an article about the new early algae species detection system developed by co-owner of Sailing Eternal Tides, Patrick Nichols, at the University of Hawai’i.
The team Patrick is part of has been working tirelessly to develop a system that combines machine learning algorithms and a specialized molecular technique to detect and identify different species of algae in real-time. While that sounds incredibly complex, it’s actually relatively simple. First, all living creatures shed their DNA– this can be in the form of skin cells, mucus, and feces, among other things. For aquatic organisms, all their DNA ends up floating around in the water, which means by filtering out their DNA, we can get a snapshot of what species are in the immediate area. This method of surveying is called environmental DNA (eDNA) biomonitoring. By using this technology, we can obtain valuable information for managers and policymakers, particularly those interested in the spread of invasive species.
In 2019, an invasive red alga was found smothering the pristine coral reefs at Manawai atoll in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM), one of the largest marine reserves in the world, situated in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands). By 2021 the alga had spread to a neighboring atoll, alarming researchers and reserve managers. Being so remote, it was extremely difficult to get the required SCUBA divers out to visually assess the spread of this invasive species. Patrick, therefore, began testing an eDNA biomonitoring approach to specifically target the invasive alga from simple collections of seawater samples, which can be collected and processed with minimal resources. We were thrilled to find that our method accurately detected the invasive alga under a wide range of conditions. Furthermore, the system is able to be rapidly implemented, which allows us to track changes in algae populations over time and to detect and respond to potential introductions more quickly.
“As a researcher, I am particularly excited about the utility of this technology, as it can be used for managing and protecting marine ecosystems. The early detection of invasive species can help to prevent negative impacts on native marine life, coastal communities, and the economy. Additionally, the system can track the recovery of ecosystems after disturbances and identify areas that may be particularly vulnerable to future invasions.”
– Patrick Nichols
Owner Patrick Nichols, holding a water sample that contains hundreds of species' DNA
The researchers are currently working to refine and improve the system and make it more widely available to scientists and environmental managers throughout Hawaiʻi. Ideally, this technique will be used throughout major ports and harbors as a first alert in case the algae is inadvertently spread from ship ballast water contamination. By further developing this technique, they hope to make a significant impact in protecting and preserving our precious marine ecosystems for generations to come.