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Natural Perspectives: Coming to a beach near you

May 09, 2012|By Vic Leipzig and Lou Murray
  • Deploying the device off Santa Cruz that will test ocean water and also test it for bacterial contamination using QPCR.
Deploying the device off Santa Cruz that will test ocean… (Courtesy Stephen…)

Technology constantly changes, often making our world safer, and making work simpler, faster, and easier. A new molecular technology is due to arrive in our area soon that will do all of that for us in terms of beach pollution.

Last weekend, Vic and I attended a Southern California Academy of Sciences symposium at Occidental College in Eagle Rock. There, we learned about an innovative method for monitoring bacterial pollution at ocean beaches.

The keynote speaker, Stephen B. Weisberg, PhD, talked about a new molecular method for real-time monitoring of beach pollution. Weisberg is executive director of the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project in Costa Mesa. Yes, there is a state-of-the-art water research laboratory in Costa Mesa.

"Computers have transformed our ability to do analytic work," Weisberg said. "Genomics is this generation's equivalent."

Genomics is the study of the genome, which is an organism's genes (DNA). And as anyone who watches CSI on television knows, DNA analysis has revolutionized how things are done by police forensics departments. Homeland Security, the military, and various medical fields use it as well. All individuals (except identical twins or clones) have a unique set of genes. And all organisms can be identified as to species by their DNA fingerprint.

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Weisberg and co-workers have developed technology for using remote automated DNA analysis to monitor bacteria at ocean beaches. Weisberg showed a picture of a "Beach Closed" sign such as is put up now to warn people of beach bacterial contamination. Those warnings, however, are based upon monitoring that was done the day before. The contamination issue may be irrelevant by the time a sign goes up.

"The sign should say, 'Water was bad yesterday, don't know about today, come back tomorrow,'" Weisberg said.

That's because the way that beach monitoring is done today requires laboratory culture of ocean water samples to see what levels of bacteria might be present.

A technician travels to various beaches to collect samples early in the morning. The samples are brought back to the lab and grown on agar plates, typically overnight.

By the time results can be read, it is the next day. If there had been contamination, the beaches aren't closed until the next day. But by then the problem well could be over. So all that today's technology tells us is that we shouldn't have been swimming there the day before!

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