The summer before I graduated from undergrad, I had the opportunity to participate in a NSF-funded “Research Experiences for Undergraduates” program (REU). To all those undergrads out there – this is a FANTASTIC opportunity to gain research experience before graduating and I HIGHLY recommend checking it out! For my REU, I worked with Dr. Sonya Dyhrman at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on a project that investigated the applicability of using a molecular approach to monitor harmful algal blooms in the Puget Sound, WA. We collaborated with the WA State Department of Health and a team of citizen-samplers to collect water column samples from over 40 sites in the Puget Sound. These samples were shipped to Woods Hole where we isolated DNA and used quantitative PCR to generate cell counts of the dinoflagellate Alexandrium catenella (a toxic microalga that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning). We compared the cell counts to the concentration of paralytic shellfish toxins (PST) in the region and found that an increase in shellfish toxicity was preceded by an increase in the number of algal cells in 71% of the cases (Dyhrman et al. 2010). The figure above shows data from the 2006 sampling season (Figure 3, Dyhrman et al. 2010). The top panel shows Alexandrium catenella abundances (cells/L) and the bottom panel shows PST concentrations (in micrograms of PST/100 g of shellfish tissue). This research provides an example of how we can use molecular tools to address ecological problems.