New research method monitors oysters’ health one beat at a time

The quality and taste of an oyster is related to its health, but how do you test an oyster’s health while letting it to continue to grow? One possible indicator is heart rate, and researchers at the University of Prince Edward Island have developed a portable heartbeat monitor designed just for oysters. The simple, noninvasive device could be used by farmers to understand the effects of a range of factors on their oyster production.

“I knew that oysters are a big part of our fishing industry and that their well-being is correlated to water quality and other aspects. There are a lot of technologies on the water quality side,” Ali Ahmadi, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Sustainable Design Engineering at UPEI, said. “But for the oyster itself, there are not that many quantitative technologies that give you an indication of the well-being of an oyster.”

A group of students in Ahmadi’s combined fourth-year/graduate course on innovations in biomedical engineering took on the project. Under the supervision of Ahmadi, Tartela Alkayyali, Jean-Oliver Allaire, Zumer Fatima, Heather MacLean, and Nadja Bressan designed the heartbeat monitor. They used off-the-shelf materials, including a sensor that is also used to measure human heart rates. By attaching the sensor to the oyster’s shell, they were able to test its heartbeat response to different water temperatures and salinity levels.

The researchers found that an oyster’s heartbeat, which beat on average about 20 times a minute, increased as the surrounding water temperature and/or salinity increased. But, Ahmadi pointed out, the study was preliminary and the possibilities for the device are farther reaching. “We’re technology developers so we develop the technology,” Ahmadi said. “The next step for this is to be field tested.”

The system could help oyster farmers understand the effects of a range of local parameters he explained, “a culinary expert and a farmer could use it together to identify these parameters and see how could it be used for better quality oysters.” And they could do so at a low cost.

Testing the heartbeat monitor in the lab Submitted photo

The materials for the prototype were less than $100 and Ahmadi expects newer versions to cost even less. “This was a prototype so when we built it, we weren’t paying attention to cost necessarily. If we need to make 100 or 50 of these, we can reduce the cost,” he said. “When we get to cost-saving, we can reduce the price to probably under $50 or $30.” To get it field-ready, they will need to add a waterproof casing, but Ahmadi said that is a simple step.

“If any of the farmers are interested, we’d be happy to collaborate with them to do some quantitative studies,” Ahmadi said. “I would love to see this being tested in the field and make an actual contribution, an impact for the aquaculture industry. It’s just a matter of communicating with the relevant people and getting them excited about this project.”