The COASTAL project aims to develop sensors to detect paralysing toxins in crustaceans and molluscs
Published in 17/1/2023
The main objective of the COASTAL research project is reflected in its name: the development of microfluidic sensors for the rapid detection of marine toxins in sustainable aquaculture. The aim is apparently simple but challenging and with a strong societal and economic relevance.
The project is financed by the 'EEA grants - Blue Growth Programme', operated by the DGPM (General Directorate for Sea Policies) and has the University of Aveiro (UA) as its proponent entity. To learn more about this project, we talked to the researcher in charge, Alisa Rudnitskaya (CESAM/DQUA).
What are you specifically trying to achieve with this project?
Our ultimate goal is to develop a microfluidic system, which can be used automatically for the rapid detection of marine toxins in bivalve molluscs, particularly paralyzing toxins.
These toxins have to be monitored because they are dangerous for human health, and if they are present in high concentrations in bivalves they can cause paralysis and other severe complications in humans. In a very simplified way, these toxins are produced by some microalgae species, which accumulate in bivalves because they feed on these microalgae by filtering the water. Several species of microalgae produce these paralysing toxins (not a single toxin, but a large group of toxins), and each microalgae produces a specific set of toxins, which we call the toxin profile.
And what is a microfluidic system?
We have been working for a long time on developing sensors (biological and chemical), and now the idea is to implement these sensors in a microfluidic system. What does this system allow? Allows to automate the entire analysis, i.e. sensor stabilisation, measurements, sensor cleaning... all the steps necessary for the analysis can thus be automated.
And what is its practical application?
In aquaculture companies, for example, who need to analyse and have precise control over the levels of toxins in their products. Because if the levels of toxins exceed, even slightly (and without danger to human health), the levels regulated by law, you risk having to discard your entire product as it is considered unfit for human consumption. Or if they intend, for example, to sell shellfish to other countries, which may have different legal and regulatory frameworks.
The monitoring of toxins in Portugal is carried out by the IPMA (Portuguese Institute of the Sea and the Atmosphere) for official food control. Still, obviously, it is impossible for them to analyse, at all times, all the places where there is production (aquaculture) or harvesting (artisanal) of bivalves. For this monitoring, there are defined collection points and a mandatory weekly frequency.
In fact, 99% of the samples that IPMA collects are negative samples, that is, they do not represent problems for human health... and significantly reduce the workload.
Which is your objective...
Yes. Currently, there are already commercial kits for rapidly detecting these toxins, but they are only suitable for some of the toxins occurring here in Portugal. As I said before, each microalgae species produces a specific toxin profile. And worldwide, the most common species are Alexandrium spp., which produce the profile of toxins that these kits can detect. But in Portugal and beyond (Spain, Mexico, Chile, New Zealand, and Japan, for example), a different microalga produces paralysing toxins that are not detected by these kits. Which makes them unsuitable for use in our country.
And at the end of last year, they already held a seminar with all the project partners, correct?
Yes, on the 7th of December, we held the Webinar “Advances in the detection of marine toxins using sensors”, where we had the participation of more than 80 participants from 10 different countries.
We intended to inform about the project's existence and discuss the existing knowledge of the partners and the challenges we face in this area. The seminar was chaired by Dr Teresa Gomes (UA), and, in addition to presentations by several international specialists in this area, we also had the presence of Dr Sandra Silva from DGPM, who introduced the project's sponsor (EEA Grants).
What are the next steps?
The challenge now is to execute the project and present concrete results. We hope that in February or March, we will already have the prototype to test, and at the beginning of next year, we plan to organise another seminar to present the final results of this project.
Project Partner Entities: o Instituto Português do Mar e da Atmosfera (IPMA, I.P.), o SINTEF MinaLab e a Universidade Norueguesa de Ciências Ambientais e Biológicas (NMBU)
Photo Credits: EEA Grants – Portugal, blue Growth programme