Mussel-mounted motion sensors can help detect toxins in our water

Mussels are fascinating creatures that who’s powerful role in our ecosystems is often overlooked. We’ve written previously about how mussels inspired highly effective surgical glue as well as how they can accurately gauge levels of pollution and identify contaminants in underwater environments.

Now, with this special ability in mind, scientists have developed a mussel-mounted sensor that has been designed as a means of detecting water pollution as early as possible.

Mussels open and close their shells to feed, then filter tiny organisms out of the water they take in. Although mussels are often situated amongst a bed of fellow mollusks, each one moves its shell independently. However, if a toxic waterborne substance flows through the bed of mussels, all of them will immediately communicate to close their shells simultaneously.

Working off this natural mussel movement, a research team at North Carolina State University developed tiny sensors that are made of two linked inertial measurement units (IMUs). One IMU adheres to each side of the mussel’s shell and each one contains an accelerometer and a magnetometer.

These two IMUs work together to detect whether the shell is open or closed. If many mussels in a single bed have had the sensors implemented, it’s possible to observe when they all close their shells at the same time.

Eventually, the idea is for all the sensors in a group of mussels to be connected to a solar-powered processor mounted on a stake within the stream. That unit would be used to transmit data through a cellular network. If group shell-shutting is detected, authorities could immediately respond, find the source of the water pollution, and work to eliminate it.

So far, the sensors have only been used on four mussels at a time, but we will continue to follow this innovative idea as it gets scaled up.

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