Drone over VIMS.

From molecular assays to drones and cytobots, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science is at the cutting-edge of using high-tech to better understand and manage harmful algal blooms (HABs).

Expand the selections below to learn more about the tools and techniques we use to monitor and identify HABs.

Imaging Flow Cytobot

VIMS professor Juliette Smith prepares her cytobot for deployment in the York River. © L. Gomez/VIMS.VIMS researchers Kimberly Reece and Juliette Smith have recently acquired an Imaging FlowCytobot to monitor HABs in lower Chesapeake Bay. This automated underwater monitoring device captures high-resolution images of the particles (including algal cells) suspended in the water flowing through it. These images can then be used to “train” the machine to identify different algal species using a technique known as flow cytometry. Once trained, the machine can be deployed for long periods, during which it will provide a real-time data stream of the algal species it encounters.

In particular, the researchers hope to detect and track Dinophysis spp., a group of algal species that has been associated with adverse human health effects in other parts of the world. Along with other technologies, researchers at VIMS hope to use the cytobot as part of an early-warning system for detecting blooms in the Bay.

Molecular Genetics

qPCR assay for {em}Karlodinium veneficum{/em}. The y-axis shows the level of fluorescence, which correlates to the concentration of {em}K. veneficum{/em} in the sample. © G. Scott)Molecular genetics is the study of the structure and function of genes. Scientists use the tools and techniques of molecular genetics to learn more about organisms by studying their DNA. One tool is polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which allows researchers to produce many copies of a specific piece of DNA. In the laboratory of VIMS Professor Kimberly Reece, researchers use quantitative PCR (qPCR) to identify the algal species in a water sample and to determine the amount of DNA present for each. From this information, they can determine the concentration of cells of those species—typically reported as number of cells per milliliter of water. The Reece Lab also uses the techniques of molecular genetics to assess the biological impacts of HABs on local aquaculture species, including oysters.

NASA Satellite Imagery

Chlorophyll a in the lower York River on 29 August 2016 as indicated by the ESA Sentinel-2a satellite sensor.VIMS collaborates with NASA and NOAA to investigate HABs in lower Chesapeake Bay. Blooms tend to be highly dynamic; their concentrations and distributions can change rapidly. High-resolution satellite imagery allows researchers to locate and track blooms as they crop up and move throughout the Bay. Learn more.


VIMS professor Donglai Gong flies his aerial drone near the VIMS campus in search of algal blooms in the York River. © D. Gong/VIMS.VIMS Assistant Professor Donglai Gong uses aerial drones to capture high-definition images and videos of HABs in lower Chesapeake Bay. This technology allows researchers to target specific areas of the Bay in order to track the distribution and duration of these highly dynamic blooms.