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Science Nation: Lab in a Can

3 minutes

(male narrator) It looks like a garbage can, but it's actually a fully functioning laboratory thrown overboard to analyze water samples in the open ocean. One day, a similar machine might communicate whether a beach is safe for swimming or if water is okay to drink. The so-called "Lab in a Can" is nicknamed "ESP."

(Chris Scholin) ESP is the Environmental Sample Processor. It's an instrument that collects water, allows you to extract particles from that, and use molecular probe technology to understand presence of certain organisms and their activities.

(narrator) With support from the National Science Foundation, microbiologist Chris Scholin and his team at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute created the ESP to work by itself, so they don't have to return to the lab when they want to analyze samples collected at sea.

(Christina Preston) Intake valves draw in seawater with a syringe. We create a vacuum and pull the seawater through a filter that collects specific size particles.

(narrator) Using onboard robotics, ESP can do tests ranging from detecting microbes and toxins to basic DNA analysis.

(Jim Birch) Each line represents a different organism. The ESP has enough battery power to last roughly 30 to 45 days. The goal is having something that goes six months.

(narrator) Researchers say an ESP network might cover our oceans, monitoring for problems like oil spills or on farms, to detect microorganisms like salmonella in the water used to hose down crops before they're shipped to market.

(Chris Melancon) Ideally, we could detect in the field before getting to the packaging plant and onto people's tables.

(Chris Newman) It think it's real exciting stuff. All people who do aquaculture must test water every day.

(narrator) Chris Newman is testing ESP at his fish farm to see if it detects bacteria in his tanks.

(Newman) Water quality testing is time consuming. If you get it wrong, many fish can die.

(narrator) Scholin's team is working to pair ESP with an autonomous underwater vehicle, so it can go mobile. You might call it, "Lab in a Can 2.0." For Science Nation, I'm Miles O'Brien.

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Monitoring water quality is vital to make sure dangerous bacteria doesn't creep into drinking water or overcome sewage treatment plants. With support from the National Science Foundation, engineers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute have developed the Environment Sample Processor (ESP), a "DNA lab in a can." The size of a trash can, it can be placed in the open ocean or at water treatment facilities to identify potentially harmful bacteria, algae, larvae, and other microscopic organisms in the surrounding waters. It can monitor and send results back to the lab in real time to monitor water quality. Now, the engineers are modifying the ESP so it can go mobile, working from an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV).

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Runtime: 3 minutes

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