Biofouling is a process of microorganisms colonizing underwater surfaces such as ship keels. It is a big problem for the shipping industry and the methods to combat it are not very environmentally-friendly. But now scientists at the University of Iceland have found a new environmentally friendly way to combat marine biofouling.

Biofouling causes a whole load of issues for shipping and fishing industries. These marine microorganisms grow on ships, reducing their hydrodynamic efficiency. In other words, ships become less sleek and, therefore, find it more difficult to move across the water nicely. Biofouling increases fuel consumption, because more energy is needed to overcome increased drag. It also encourages corrosion, increases weight and might even hide some structural problems. It’s just not good, which is why  for centuries ships have been trying to get rid of all that live mass.

The current methods include special anti-fouling paint, which may include toxic chemicals that essentially poison organisms that are trying to attach to a ship. Whenever possible, ships are also pulled out in dry docks and cleaned. Historically, copper cladding was used as well. Toxic materials are bad for the environment and many of them were banned, but increased fuel consumption means that emissions are worse as well and so it is obvious that better anti-biofouling means are needed to avoid damaging the environment in all of those ways.

Scientists in Iceland studied the behaviour of one type of silica algae, called Phaeodactylum tricornutum. Silica algae are the most common and important group of phytoplankton in the sea and cause most biofouling. Scientists were able to identify 61 genes that activate protein receptors when the phytoplankton attaches to surfaces underwater. They also found that by increasing the amount of the genes and some protein receptors they can control the binding of the plankton. Scientists believe that these findings can help them create novel and environmentally friendly ways to deal with biofouling.

Controlling biological processes through genes, obviously, will require some impressive pieces of technology, but scientists think that it can be done. This is just the very beginning of this research and it will take a long time to develop this idea into some sort of product or strategy that can be used to control biofouling. Ultimately this will help reduce the problem of biofouling on ships and other underwater structures.

Shipping industry is always under scrutiny for its environmental impact and anti-biofouling methods are just a small part of the problem.  Ballast water spreads invasive species, ships burn heavy fuel oil and produce a lot of air pollution and then they are also noisy, which disturbs marine ecosystems. Hopefully step by step all these problems can be corrected.

Source: University of Iceland