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Solving Microbial Mysteries with Autonomous Technology

Being able to recognize the role of fixed nitrogen in ocean processes is important for understanding low-oxygen areas in the world’s oceans. Insight into microbial interactions in oxygen deficient waters will allow researchers to better predict the marine response to increased nutrient runoff, eutrophication, and hypoxia – all of which currently threaten the livelihoods of many coastal communities as a warming climate leads to the expansion of low oxygen “dead” zones.

Oxygen Deficient Zones (ODZs) are critical for the carbon, nitrogen, and energy balances in the ocean. In order to examine this on a detailed scale, scientists need to collect water samples that contain these compounds. However, it is difficult to sample, move, and incubate seawater from ODZs without oxygen contamination – until now. During a three week expedition aboard Falkor, to one of the largest ODZs in the Eastern Tropical North Pacific, Professor Karen Casciotti, Stanford University, and Professor Andrew Babbin, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will attempt to find a solution with new technology.

Collaboration between oceanographers, chemists, microbial experts, and mechanical engineers will allow the team to develop technology that autonomously incubates and documents microbial processes. These measurements are traditionally conducted shipboard using water samples that are placed in simulated conditions to where they were obtained. The team aboard Falkor will assess the new device’s performance against traditional methods, with state of the art incubations on the ship to determine accuracy, and measure the rates of nitrogen transformation in the region.

By creating devices that carry out instructions underwater, efficiency will be increased, while preventing topside atmospheric contamination of samples. It will also help scientists to understand altered nitrogen content in a changing ocean and answer fundamental questions about microbes in these regions. Once refined, this technology will be applicable to a wide variety of important questions in marine science, and has the potential to be an irreplaceable tool in future studies.

Learn more here.

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