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Robotic DNA Samplers in Development to Track Biological Threats in Waterways

Scientists need a more compact and nimble design for easier deployment in freshwater rivers and streams.

The U.S. Geological Survey announced today it has signed a cooperative agreement with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, or MBARI, to develop portable robotic DNA samplers capable of independently monitoring for living threats in the rivers and streams without constant support from researchers.

With new investments from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the partnership will help advance detection of invasive species, pathogens and parasites which cause ecological and economic damage to aquatic systems. These organisms can wreak havoc on our waterways, threaten commercial and recreational fishing industries and promote the spread of zoonotic diseases that can impact humans.

Researchers with the USGS have also launched a new program, building on earlier work, called Rapid eDNA Assessment and Deployment Initiative and Network, or READI-Net, which tests for DNA fragments in the water known as environmental DNA, or eDNA. READI-Net will enhance early detection and rapid-response methods to help resource managers contain and control aquatic biological threats.

“Freshwater environments are critical for ecosystem health and provide valuable resources for food and recreation,” said Adam Sepulveda, a USGS scientist and the project lead. “The USGS has successfully used eDNA methods and robotic samplers as an early-detection strategy for biological threats to important aquatic systems.”  For example, the USGS has engaged in eDNA survey campaigns for invasive dreissenid mussels, carp, round goby and Burmese python in water basins across the country.

MBARI will design the eDNA samplers to be roughly the size of a microwave oven so they are easily carried and will fit into USGS streamgages for possible deployment across the nation,” said Jim Birch, Director of the SURF Center at MBARI. “These new eDNA samplers will provide high-quality data for scientists, leading to effective monitoring for aquatic biological threats.”

Robotic samplers can help researchers search for hard-to-find organisms by detecting their DNA in the water. The current MBARI-designed sampler, called the Environmental Sample Processor or ESP, was built to be a sturdy 400-pound machine for use in rugged marine environments. Scientists need a more compact and nimble design for easier deployment in freshwater rivers and streams. As part of the new agreement, the USGS and MBARI will design a new robotic eDNA sampler. This new device will be smaller and lighter, with an easy-to-use computer to facilitate deployments and wireless connectivity so researchers can control sampling remotely.

The eDNA robot will be programmed to take samples frequently and at any time of day and will collect large amounts of data that must be managed and analyzed. The USGS READI-Net researchers will develop field and laboratory procedures to acquire high-quality data, produce analytical tools to process and validate large volumes of information, and create products for the public and decision-makers, such as resource managers, to easily visualize the results.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is advancing scientific innovation through a $510.7 million investment for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) which is supporting integrated mapping and interpretation of mineral resources data, the preservation of data from geochemical samples from the Earth Mapping Resource Initiative (Earth MRI), and a replacement facility for the USGS energy and minerals research center in Golden, Colo. and other resources for scientists.

For more information on the READI-Net project, please visit the USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center website.

Read more at USGS

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