School of Medicine

Wayne State University School of Medicine

Researcher's test system to provide automated, faster detection of invasive species in shipboard ballast water

Jeffrey Ram, Ph.D.

Jeffrey Ram, Ph.D.

A Wayne State University School of Medicine researcher is working to create a device ships can carry to avoid bringing new invasive species into the Great Lakes.

Jeffrey Ram, Ph.D., professor of Physiology, has received an $823,000 grant from the Great Lakes Protection Fund for his “Automated Ballast Water Treatment Verification Project.” His team will seek to develop an automated, shipboard, rapid-testing system that will be able to report -- in real time -- the presence of any live organisms in ballast water after it has been treated.

“If successful, this effort will eliminate one of the greatest challenges facing invasive species control: the ability to get feedback at any time of day and even while ships are under way that their ballast treatment systems are working to prevent the discharge live organisms that may have come from other ecosystems,” Dr. Ram said.

To create the new system, the researchers are applying automation technology to adapt chemistry used to detect live salt water organisms to fresh water samples from the Detroit River and elsewhere in the Great Lakes. WSU has a provisional patent for Dr. Ram’s automation technology. The method is based on a vital staining process in which a colorless chemical interacts with enzymes to produce bright fluorescence in live organisms.

Amar Basu, Ph.D., assistant professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Biomedical Engineering in the College of Engineering, has worked on enzyme detection methods and is collaborating with Dr. Ram on the project.

One problem with vital staining, Dr. Ram said, is that trained microscopists are needed to observe the brightly stained organisms, because nonliving items also can be fluorescent. A second problem is that the fluorescent compounds leak out of the organisms into the surrounding liquid, turning it more fluorescent while the actual organisms fade quickly, sometimes too quickly for the microscopists to make all of their observations.

To gauge ballast water treatment effectiveness, Dr. Ram’s team will focus on an alternative  method  of measuring the fluorescence to determine the total biomass of the live organisms it contains. By automating the system, he will be able to test large volumes of water in a way that minimizes the expertise level needed to make the needed measurements, and to do so in real time without a person actually being present aboard a ship.

“Our goal is to develop a simple, rapid method that can be used in the field to make measurements when the ballast water treatments are actually being accomplished, so that users can get immediate feedback as to whether their treatment is effective or not,” Dr. Ram said, adding that speed, ease and automation are necessary to accommodate ship schedules, which are constantly subject to last-minute changes. Government agencies, which also are cooperating on the project, also need tools that are easy to use so they can confirm compliance with new ballast water regulations set to take effect in the near future.

The grant builds upon two of Dr. Ram’s recent projects funded by the U.S., Environmental Protection Agency, one of which sought to verify the effectiveness of ballast water treatment systems aboard Great Lakes-bound ships. The other was to test an early warning system in Toledo Harbor (Maumee River and Bay) and western Lake Erie for the entry of invasive species into the Great Lakes.

In the first two years of the new grant, Dr. Ram’s team will create a series of increasingly sophisticated prototype systems and test them in the laboratory. Researchers then will use those results to build several prototype versions of the system for testing at the land-based ballast water testing facility of the Great Ships Initiative in Superior, Wis. GSI will compare the performance of the automated systems to current labor-intensive microscopic methods established by EPA’s environmental technology verification program.

By the middle of the second year, researchers expect to begin shipboard testing, using fully automated devices on at least two working vessels. One of those, the Ranger III, is operated by the U.S. National Park Service and serves Isle Royale National Park. Tests on the other vessel will be set up by Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

“All along we’ll be talking to state regulators and ship owners and eventually manufacturers,” Dr. Ram said. “The eventual outcome should be a device that is ready for market that stakeholders in ballast water treatment verification are informed about and hopefully will enthusiastically adopt.

“This is the perfect time for this project, because international and state regulations are due to come into full force around 2016, and ships that don’t currently have treatment systems will likely have to install them,” he added. “The verification technology has to be developed now, so that newly installed treatment systems can be proven to be effective, verifiable and compliant with the law. This will be a great step forward in protecting the ecology of the Great Lakes.”

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