For the past week or so, I have been caring for a flowthrough cytometer installed on the Thompson. This device continuously processes a stream of seawater brought in through the Thompson's seawater intake and sucked into the machine through a thin blue line. Seaflow is a new twist on traditional flow cytometry. Cytometers were initially used to analyze cells for diagnoses (ex. blood cancer) in the medical field. Instead of analyzing individual samples one by one, though, Seaflow has been modified to deal with the difficulties of examining running seawater containing phytoplankton. Phytoplankton are photosythesizing organisms that "can't fight the current" – Planktos means "drifter" in Greek. They form the base of many marine food webs and influence global climate, in addition to many other important reasons we study them. Seaflow will allow us to obtain continuous realtime data on these organisms, contributing to the goals of the Ocean Observatories Initiative (http://www.oceanobservatories.org/about/). After the cytometer gets going, it is almost completely autonomous.
So far, my latest challenge with Seaflow has been cleaing out a film of brown algae and debris that clogs the intake line whenever the machine has not been used for a while. From biofilms in the Seaflow lines, to juvenile barnacles trying to settle on the Slocum glider and limpets crawling onto the sensor bots, biofouling is an ever-present challenge in the field of ocean engineering. Eventually, though, Seaflow will require minimal onboard maintenance since some of its functions can be controlled over the ships' satellite connections. Even now, Jarred, Seaflow's creator and engineer, has been able to tinker with the cytometer from land, emailing me instructions whenever he needs something more done. Check out Seaflow's web page for more information! Here's a YouTube video of the kind of data we'll be collecting: http://armbrustlab.ocean.washington.edu/node/226.