Sandia LabNews

Sandia research to focus on early detection of harmful algal blooms

Researchers Todd Lane and Victoria VanderNoot have been awarded a research grant to develop a technology to detect deadly toxins from harmful algal blooms (HABs). The funding is provided by the Cooperative Institute for Coastal and Estuarine Environmental Technology, a partnership of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of New Hampshire.

Todd and Victoria, a molecular biologist and an analytical chemist, respectively, are both in Biosystems Research Dept. 8321 at Sandia/

California. In addressing the HAB problem, they will employ laser-induced fluorescence and other separation methods inherent in Sandia’s µChemLab™ (MicroChemLab) technology.

Along with a small team of Sandia colleagues and external collaborators, they have commenced with the research, which could lead to longer-term funding after the initial “proof of principle” work has been completed.

Harmful algal blooms are widely acknowledged to be a severe coastal resource management issue, adversely impacting virtually every coastal region. Current methods for detecting the poisonous toxins characteristic of the blooms are cumbersome, require either expensive reagents or animal testing, or are unable to quantify toxins — critical information for managing shellfish beds. The technologies under development at Sandia would eliminate these problems.

“Today’s standard detection methods, frankly, are too slow and labor-intensive,” says Todd. “By the time the process is complete, it’s too late — the shellfish beds are already toxic.” The ability to quickly sample organisms low on the food chain, Todd says, can provide an early warning system to help protect communities from exposure to toxins.

Most algae not harmful

Most species of algae are not harmful and actually serve as the energy producers at the depths of the food web. The dense patches (or “blooms”) that sometimes accumulate near the surface of the water, however, can produce potent neurotoxins that are then transferred through the food chain, accumulating in zooplankton and shellfish, eventually harming or even killing marine mammals and humans that consume tainted shellfish.

The Sandia research will focus on enhancing the early-warning capability of detection. It is expected to lay the groundwork for the development of a reliable, cost-effective prototype to simultaneously analyze multiple HAB toxins in phytoplankton and shellfish in the field. Todd and his colleagues will aim to optimize the microseparations process for a subset of relevant toxins, and establish the laboratory-based protocols for sample preparation.

Goal: Develop lightweight devices

The long-term goal, should the initial phase of the Sandia research go as planned, is to develop small, lightweight devices that could be fielded by oceanographers and marine biologists as part of their regular monitoring systems.

In addition to Todd and Victoria from Sandia, collaborators include Donald Anderson, a senior scientist and director of the Coastal Ocean Institute, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute; and Gregg Langlois, marine biologist at the California Department of Health Services.

The technologies developed under this effort will be equally well suited to detecting algal toxins in freshwater sources and complement other ongoing research at Sandia. Sandia’s water initiative (, for example, strives to increase the safety, security, and sustainability of water infrastructure through the development of advanced technologies that create new water supplies, decrease demand through water-use efficiency, and provide decision-informing tools to the institutions responsible for balancing supply and demand.