Dr Balam Jimenez
Real time toxin monitoring could save billions for the global aquaculture industry
Protecting the safety of kaimoana for future generations
Sickness from ‘dodgy’ seafood, which is contaminated with toxins from harmful algal blooms or Paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP), has been an issue as long as we have been harvesting kaimoana from our oceans. Eating shellfish contaminated with toxins from dinoflagellate algae, can be 1,000 times more potent than cyanide, and in some cases, fatal. This risk also has crippling and expensive consequences for the growing aquaculture industry.
This is the issue, SfTI Seed Researcher, Dr Balam Jimenez, is tackling with his real time toxin sensor. Based at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, but originally from Mexico, Dr Jimenez is passionate about safe seafood for future generations.
He says, “When I was growing up by the Pacific coast of Mexico I remember how sometimes my mum used to say no seafood today because there is a red tide, somebody died. Once I had my daughter in Aotearoa New Zealand, I saw similar things happening here. My daughter is Whakatōhea and they come from Opotiki, Bay of Plenty. Whakatōhea have a strong relationship with their seafood. I am passionate about my daughter being able to enjoy seafood, because it’s taonga for Whakatōhea.”
“I am not just concerned about community access to safe seafood, but future access to seafood in general. Aquaculture is the answer to unsustainable fishing practises, but it also causes problems. Farming in closed-off environments can exacerbate the harmful impacts of toxin producing algae blooms.”
This issue costs the global aquaculture industry approximately 8 billion dollars annually. Not only from the costs of monitoring and loss of product, but also time. Current monitoring processes are expensive and take days to process.
To solve these issues, Dr Jimemez is developing a real time sensor that can detect tiny amounts of damaging toxins in the water and flesh of seafood products. The ultimate goal is to create something affordable and portable that individuals and aquaculture businesses can use themselves to monitor even the smallest amounts of these toxins.
Aptamers, the answer to real time monitoring
Dr Jimenez is building on recent research using Aptamers, which are synthetic single stranded oligonucleotides (DNA and RNA or Nucleic acids) that bind to a specific target, in this case incredibly small amounts of toxin. This advanced use of Apatamer technology will be used to develop a toxin monitoring tool for iwi, industry and communities. The tool will enable point of care testing and be widely accessible because it doesn’t require a laboratory or expensive assessment equipment. Dr Jimenez explains, “This sensor will be able to detect toxins in very low levels comparable to detecting a rugby ball in a thousand trillion Westpac stadiums.”
Dr Jimenez is developing a prototype of this tool to trial later this year in collaboration with Kono, a Māori family-owned food and beverage business that farms, processes and exports greenshell mussels and Whakatōhea mussels. During his research journey he has realised just how broad the market for this tool could be. He has started to look at how his aptamer based sensor could be developed to recognise many different bioorganic compounds which could work for a number of different industries.
The researcher journey
Dr Jimenez believes that the success of his project so far is partly due to the personal development opportunities SfTI has provided. He took part in a SfTI Science Leadership course and a pre-accelerator programme, ‘Rewa’,- which means “to elevate”. Taking part in Rewa dramatically broadened how he saw the market potential of his work.
He explains, “Part of the work for Rewa was to undertake 100 ‘customer discovery’ phone calls. This helped me look at what was happening internationally in aquaculture and recognise how many global opportunities there are with this tech.”
“I connected with far reaching groups like First Nations People in the United States and Australian prawn farmers. I learned so much about the potential global impact of what I’m developing.”
The Science Leadership course was a unique opportunity for Dr Jimenez. He feels it gave him the tools to persevere with his project through a very challenging time in his personal life:
“As a scientist we don’t get opportunities to grow ourselves like this very often. You have your head down in the lab and are very focussed on the outcomes of your research. But your science cannot succeed if you are not looking after yourself. It was amazing to take the time to develop myself and become a more resilient scientist on the leadership course, and this has got me to where I am now."
Dr Jimenez recently met with members of the Australian Aquaculture Industry, and has joined The United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development – 2020-2031 as an Early Career Ocean Professional.
All photos taken by Image Services, Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington