Virtual Fish Use Synthetic Fat to Soak Up Toxins from Oregon River

fish in green photo

Photo by Beau B via Flickr CC

Oregon scientists are using a new method for detecting pollutants in the Hood River, even pollutants that occur at one part per quadrillion. They're calling the method "virtual fish" and the key ingredient is synthetic fish fat. OPB News reports that scientists are mimicking the way a fish would absorb pollutants in order to discover which pollutants are making their way into the river. Fish absorb toxins through the food they eat as well as the water as it cycles through their gills, and those toxins are usually stored in their bodies, accumulating over time. That's exactly why fish higher up on the food chain, such as salmon and tuna, usually have more mercury in them -- they consume smaller fish that have mercury and other toxins in their bodies, and they live longer, allowing the toxins to build up. Using this same process of accumulating toxins over time, scientists can detect trace amounts of pollutants and how they build up.

virtual fish doc photo

Images courtesy of USGS

The US Geological Survey states:

Organic contaminants, even in low concentrations, can accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals and cause health problems. Such very low concentrations are not measurable using conventional sampling methods, so USGS scientists are using a new technology--semipermeable-membrane devices (SPMD's)--to measure contaminants in the Columbia River Basin (fig. 2). Each SPMD consists of a thin membrane filled with a fatty compound. The SPMD is placed in the river, where it accumulates organic contaminants and thus acts as a "virtual fish."

virtual fish doc photo

Images courtesy of USGS
What Is The Virtual Fish?
The virtual fish tool, or SPMD, is essentially a paint can with holes, and inside is synthetic "fish fat" that traps pollutants as it flows through the can. Every month or so, researchers pull the cans and send the insides to a lab to discover what is in the river, and in what amounts.

The research is important to find out what substances are making their way from farm land or households to water ways, which can then affect the salmon and steelhead hatchery within the river. By keeping a close eye even on the tiniest amounts of pollutants -- from pesticides to soaps or pharmaceuticals -- researchers hope to stop problems before they can gain momentum. These virtual fish can help both environmentalists and concerned farmers or politicians stay ahead of the curve in keeping the ecosystem safe. As OPB reports, for now, the sampling done with virtual fish is experimental; however, as the technology improves and determining the levels of certain pollutants found in the water and captured by the tool becomes more accurate, the data may be used to improve policies and regulations regarding water quality.

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