Bye-bye barnacles?

Date: 1/12/2003

Dolphin skin inspires research aimed at keeping hulls clear of marine freeloaders.

Surprising new lessons in dolphin anatomy and polymer chemistry may be teaching researchers a thing or two about how to keep ship hulls free of tubeworms, barnacles and other aquatic freeloaders. Dolphins are well known among anatomists for the extraordinary hydrodynamic properties that allow them to reach sustained swimming speeds of 20 mph or more.

Now a chemist is taking her inspiration from another exceptional dolphin feature – its unique skin topology – to combat the underwater ‘biofouling’ of ship hulls, long considered an aggravation by the shipping industry. Karen Wooley, St Louis University, USA, explained that her work focuses on understanding molecular-level interactions between biological systems and synthetic materials, whether harmful or beneficial. Her challenge for combatting biofouling, then, has been to devise a polymer on the proper scale to prevent adhesion by such marine organisms. If her hypothesis holds, the application could eventually aid or even repel the attachment of the protein-based plaque that clogs cardiovascular stents in heart patients.

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