The Imaging Flow Cytobot (IFCB) is an automated underwater microscope that rapidly and continuously identifies and counts plankton, which originally was developed and patented as a generic counting tool for research purposes. Recent research shows that harmful algal blooms (HABs) which are phytoplankton that produce toxins that can sicken or kill marine life and humans, cause more than $100 million in economic losses in US coastal waters each year. Quay Dortch, Marc Suddleson, Rick Stumpf, Jenifer Rhodes, and Dwight Trueblood fostered and led adaptation of the technology for addressing HABs, a severe and pervasive coastal management issue. The nominees for this award have been instrumental developing the technology and introducing it to the management community. As a result, McLane Research Laboratories has successfully commercialized the IFCB. McLane states, “Without NOAA’s support of the IFCB over the years and their socialization of the benefits of this novel technology at stakeholder and scientific meetings, the awareness of this product and our ability to rapidly turn this into a commercially successful product would not have been possible.”
Adapting the IFCB from a generic research tool with limited management utility to a marketable management asset for HAB detection and mitigation was a major task, spanning many years of extensive and sustained coordination. During each phase of development, the nominees were actively involved in disseminating the IFCB’s utility to coastal managers, leading to commercialization of the instrument and associated methodologies, and subsequent wide adoption by water resource managers. Collectively, this group worked with the academic, management, and private sectors to pursue the following major activities:
- Determined the feasibility of the IFCB for HAB detection and refinement, and tested algorithms for automated identification of critical HAB species in real-time;
- Developed and tested ways to increase the robustness and functionality of the instrument and to reduce the overall costs and size for operations and maintenance; and
- Researched and developed methods to allow deployment of the sensor on a wide range of monitoring platforms.
Beginning in 2006, the NOAA/University of New Hampshire Cooperative Institute for Coastal and Estuarine Environmental Technology (CICEET) program funded the application of the IFCB to the automated imaging and classification of HABs along the Texas coast. Under Dwight Trueblood (OCM), the program manager, the potential of the IFCB to provide early warnings of HABs quickly became evident. The initial successes led Rick Stumpf of NCCOS’ Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment (CCMA) to continue funding the IFCB as a means of validating forecasts via the Texas HAB Bulletin.
After the initial success of the CICEET and CCMA work, Quay Dortch and Marc Suddleson worked to fund instrument improvements and continued applications via the NCCOS Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms (ECOHAB) and Monitoring and Event Response of Harmful Algal Blooms (MERHAB) programs. NCCOS staff worked with academic partners and stakeholders to make major advances in the algorithms necessary to accurately detect key HAB species in the Texas coastal region. Procedures and protocols necessary to automate processing of large amounts of data were developed, facilitating image and data display and implementation of automating notifications to state managers of impending HAB events. Major breakthroughs in the miniaturization and reliability of the device were made, allowing extensive deployment of IFCBs along the TX coast and forming an early warning network for managers.
In a third area of development, the IFCB was further improved as part of the IOOS Ocean Technology Transition (OTT) program. Building on the success of the earlier programs, Jenifer Rhodes (IOOS) led funded efforts adapting the IFCB for application to other regions, including San Francisco Bay and the Gulf of Maine, as well as to other platforms. By working with the academic community, IFCB capabilities were successfully extended for deployment on a variety of autonomous vehicles and for towed operations. Additional efforts led to partnerships between researchers, instrument and vehicle manufacturers, and resource managers that promote access and sustainability toward operational use of the IFCB technology, thereby further expanding the utility of the instrument. For example, the original developer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and McLane Research Laboratories, Inc., the manufacturer, are aiding installation of IFCBs in new regions by developing image recognition software and data products (i.e., dash boards) to fit the management needs in each region.
At regional and national shellfish monitoring meetings, managers have become increasingly excited about potentially applying the IFCB toward efforts to protect public health from HAB events and associated toxins. To give an example of its necessity, the IFCB in 2008 detected a new, highly-toxic HAB species previously undetected in US coastal waters off the coast of Port Aransas, Texas. The early warning enabled managers to act proactively with targeted monitoring, thereby preventing a significant public health crisis. The event garnered extensive press coverage highlighting the importance of this type of capability to protecting public health. Since 2008, the IFCB has been helpful in predicting or mitigating at least eight HAB events involving multiple HAB species. These include blooms of the infamous Florida red tide species detected in 2009, leading to fisheries closures. Early warnings of blooms, based on IFCB detection, also were reported to state officials in 2010-2012. At the April 2014 Southeast Interstate Seafood Conference, Kirk Wiles, an official responsible for biotoxin monitoring at the Texas Department of Health, likened the IFCB to having three technicians on location collecting and counting samples every 20 minutes.
Because of the successes of the IFCB, resulting in the ability to provide critical early-warning monitoring at key locations, coastal water quality, resource, and public health managers and researchers seek out the IFCB. The instruments are deployed or deployment is pending in multiple locations in TX (3), MA (2), Long Island Sound (1), Chesapeake Bay (1), San Francisco Bay (1), Catalina Sea Ranch (1), and on an AUV (1) for HAB early warning to aid shellfish and aquaculture managers and for monitoring water quality. Recent ECOHAB and OTT proposals indicate that researchers and managers are actively seeking funding to expand IFCB networks.
The staff nominated for this award took a generic research tool and through vision, persistence, innovation, and outreach, made a major accomplishment for our agency by successfully transitioning a technology from research to widespread application and subsequent commercialization. Crossing the so-called “valley of death” was only possible by the actions of all those involved, a true testament to the coordination and teamwork exhibited across these NOAA programs and ultimately resulting in greater monitoring capabilities for coastal managers and the prevention of HAB related human illnesses.