Scientists from the University of Plymouth are advancing the development of new technology which could improve our ability to assess the impacts of climate change.

EmbryoPhenomics, created by researchers in the Marine Biology and Ecology Research Centre, uses bio-imaging, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) to produce automated measurements of the size, shape, movement and heart rate of organisms.

By capturing the most minute details of their early development, it provides a detailed, microscopic view of how embryos of aquatic animals, such as snails and shrimps, develop and react to the environment around them.

The technology was first outlined in a research paper published in PLoS Biology in December 2018, since then scientists have been continuing its development at the University and Plymouth Science Park (PSP).

Using PSP’s Additive Layer Manufacturing facility is allowing the team to develop a scalable suite of prototype devices which enable technology previously restricted to use in the laboratory to be extended and deployed more widely.

This includes being used in an aquatic environment as part of submersible, autonomous camera systems, with the technology expected to benefit key research areas including environmental monitoring.

Dr Oliver Tills began developing EmbryoPhenomics during his BSc (Hons) Marine Biology and Coastal Ecology degree and is continuing to lead its development in conjunction with Professor of Aquatic Biology Simon Rundle and Professor of Marine Zoology John Spicer.

Dr Tills said:

“Embryonic development is a highly dynamic process, during which embryos can be extremely sensitive to their environments. But making meaningful measurements of this sensitivity in the real world is a challenge. Developing these technology-enabled approaches will provide a deeper understanding of the effects of the various components of climate change in the marine environment, including temperature, acidity and oxygen levels.
“PSP’s on-site 3D printing centre plays a crucial role in assisting our research as it allows for extremely rapid innovation and prototyping. It provides pinpoint accuracy and gives us the chance to go from a concept to a physical design deployed out in the environment within just a day or two.”

An initial render of the design for the field-based EmbryoPhenomics device

An initial render of the design for the field-based EmbryoPhenomics device

The Marine Biology and Ecology Research Centre (MBERC)

Members of the MBERC address a broad range of research questions, from the effects of environmental stress on microbes and developing embryos to the management of large scale impacts, such as global climate change.

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Students in the national marine aquarium looking at fish in a big tank

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Plymouth Science Park opening

One Research Way, the most technologically advanced building in the West Country and the flagship building of the Plymouth Science Park, was opened in February 2017 - an important milestone in the positive trajectory of the park, and for the city and region. It focuses on attracting and supporting high-growth, highly-skilled, technology-focused businesses, creating additional opportunities for our students and graduates, and for the University to bring about economic impact through applying our research. 

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The activity highlighted here is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)

NERC is the UK's main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. Our work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere and from the poles to the equator. We coordinate some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major environmental issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on Earth, and much more.

NERC is part of UK Research & Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government. www.ukri.org