Molecular techniques to detect organisms in aquatic ecosystems are being gradually considered as an attractive alternative to standard laboratory methods. They offer faster and more accurate means of detecting and monitoring species, with respect to their traditional homologues based on culture and microscopic counting. Molecular techniques are particularly attractive when multiple species need to be detected and/or are in very low abundance. This paper reviews molecular techniques based on whole cells, such as microscope-based enumeration and Fluorescence In-Situ Hybridization (FISH) and molecular cell-free formats, such as sandwich hybridization assay (SHA), biosensors, microarrays, quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) and real time PCR (RT-PCR). Those that combine one or several laboratory functions into a single integrated system (lab-on-a-chip) and techniques that generate a much higher throughput data, such as next-generation systems (NGS), were also reviewed. We also included some other approaches that enhance the performance of molecular techniques. For instance, nano-bioengineered probes and platforms, pre-concentration and magnetic separation systems, and solid-phase hybridization offer highly pre-concentration capabilities. Isothermal amplification and hybridization chain reaction (HCR) improve hybridization and amplification techniques. Finally, we presented a study case of field remote sensing of harmful algal blooms (HABs), the only example of real time monitoring, and close the discussion with future directions and concluding remarks.
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