Using Robots in the River: Biosurveillance at USGS streamgages

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For more than a decade, researchers around the world have shown that sampling a water body and analyzing for eDNA is an effective method to detect an organism in the water. The challenge is that finding organisms that are not very abundant requires a lot of samples to locate this needle in a haystack.  Enter the "lab in a can", the water quality sampling and processing robot.

An recently completed study demonstrated the effectiveness of using streamgages as locations for sampling for eDNA (DNA fragments that are shed by an organism into the environment). However, in order to find the species of interest, such as a new invasive aquatic organisms, many samples must be collected. 

Sealing MBARI Environmental Sample Processor into its housing

Sealing MBARI Environmental Sample Processor into its housing

(Credit: Cheryl Miller, USGS. Public domain.)

USGS researchers, funded in part by the USGS National Innovation Center, partnered with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) to use a robotic sampler to sample the river 1 to 2 times per day, and process and preserve the eDNA filtered from the water sample. This robotic sampler deployed at the Snake River near Irwin, Idaho streamgage will show how this technology can be integrated into the USGS streamgage network to help partners understand and address issues such as detection of aquatic invasive species or fish pathogens.

In addition to the usefulness of the streamgage location, installing the robot at a streamgage gives us additional data, such as streamflow and water quality, to help us interpret the eDNA data, understand how the organism is behaving, and forecast risk.