The HABscope collection of samples helps provide information about early warnings for respiratory irritation caused by red tide.

SARASOTA, Fla. — Citizen science volunteers can now use a relatively low-cost tool to help increase the size and accuracy of a red tide monitoring network, according to a new study published in the peer-review journal PLoS ONE

It’s part of a network of scientists and researchers gathering data and information to better protect public health from the impacts of toxic algae in the Gulf of Mexico.

Red tide can be especially harmful to people with asthma and other chronic respiratory diseases. When a bloom occurs, many people in this category are often impacted and are likely to need medical treatment. Costs for these increased ER visits can range depending on severity and duration of exposure.

RELATED: ‘It can be very patchy’: Scientists work to map healthy beaches to help beachgoers avoid red tide

According to the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System, to develop HABscope, researchers took a low-cost, classroom-grade, portable microscope and outfitted it with a special adaptor. The gadget was designed by the team’s engineer and printed on a 3D printer. 

The engineers then used that piece to mount an Apple iPod touch to the eyepiece of the microscope. A portable power pack provides the power to light the microscope.

When the gadget is given to a citizen science volunteer, they collect a water sample, place it under the microscope and use the iPod touch to take a video.

GCOOS Research Specialist and Product Developer Robert Currier used open-source machine-learning software (Tensor Flow) to build a model that would help the computer automatically identify Karenia brevis cells in the water sample as well as its concentration.

The automated process reports its findings to researchers forecasting red tide models and can be shared with the public for more accurate reports on the algae’s presence at a local beach and if concentrations are high enough for public health concerns.

RELATED: Red tide levels in Tampa Bay at their worst in decades

“Determining cell concentrations previously required a water sample to be transported to a lab where a trained technician would review a slide to determine whether it contained K. brevis cells and counted each individual cell,” Robert Currier said.

“That process took upwards of 15 minutes or longer. Now, we can automate the process with a high degree of accuracy and have a cell count back instantaneously,” he added.

According to GCOOS, the study showed the following: 

  • An ability to increase red tide monitoring over a wider geographic area.
  • Provided more accurate scientific data about red tide concentrations based on water samples instead of anecdotal reports from beach observers.
  • Expanded the red tide monitoring network throughout the Gulf states in a cost-effective fashion.

The tool is also cost-effective according to the researchers. The Mobile phone-based microscope system is available commercially or through custom order and can range from $1,000 to $3,000 while the cost for HABscope is around $400.

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