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A Day in the Life: Eavesdropping on Marine Picoplankton

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Observing microbes in nature is a challenge. Compared to what goes on in the lab, there is not much one can do with them out there. So, instead of bringing the bacteria to the lab, why not bring the lab to the bacteria? Imagine being able to capture the expression of genes of a community of microbes in situ, and over multiple time points. This movement of the microbial stage to natural environments has been done for microbial niches that are easily accessible, such as agricultural soil, hot springs, or mine washes. But inhospitable sites far from a lab, sites such as hydrothermal vents and the open ocean, pose a bigger problem.

The solution? A steadfast robot designed and dispatched by researchers at MIT and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. Known as the Environmental Sample Processor (ESP), this robot gathers samples of seawater and stores them temporarily so as to preserve the RNA transcripts for subsequent retrieval and analysis. ESP is also able to perform DNA and protein hybridization to identify and quantify specific molecules.

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