Skip to main content

LATEST UPDATES: Racial Justice | Tracking COVID-19 (coronavirus)

How San Diego Scientists Are Helping The Navy Deal With Invasive Marine Species On Boats

Cover image for podcast episode

Biofouling, or the accumulation of marine organisms on the hull of a boat, is not new. But scientists are finding some new solutions.

Speaker 1: 00:00 Local scientists are looking at a problem that has been plaguing voters since ancient times. KPBS science and technology reporters. Shalina chat, Lani spoke to the San Diego state university researcher who may have found a way to stop Marine gunk from sticking to the bottom of boats

Speaker 2: 00:20 at appear in mission Bay diver Brian Hall and his colleagues zip into their wetsuits. They will put themselves with sponges and in the tight space between a boat and the dock, they plunge into the water. The bottom of this boat suffers from something known as biofouling. The hole is caked with heavy crusty white tube worms and these two divers have been hired to scrub them away. Brian Hall is the owner of a boat Hull cleaning business.

Speaker 3: 00:49 No, we'll end up with oysters and clams and mussels that grow on these boats. Uh, it starts with a, you know, a slime or small algae, uh, and then progresses to the, to the harder, more complex growth.

Speaker 2: 00:59 Paul says the average boat owner can spend around $1,500 a year just to get rid of these invasive and heavy Marine species. And if the boat owners do nothing, this Marine Gunks still cost them money because it decreases fuel performance.

Speaker 3: 01:14 The new boater is often shocked. We get people that purchase new boats three or four months later. Then we get an emergency call and they've got a forest down there and they tried to go to Catalina and realized they were going half the speed they could be.

Speaker 2: 01:25 Biofouling isn't new since ancient times. Boat owners have used paints with toxic materials like tin to prevent Marine life from building up. Some of these paints have been banned because they hurt Marine life. The need for solutions has caught the attention of not only boaters, but also scientists in his lab on the San Diego state university campus, Marine microbiologists, Nicholas Shikumen, points to a Petri dish bubbling with water inside is bacteria and a small colony of white, cylindrical two birds. He's looking at how the bacteria and tube worms interact.

Speaker 4: 01:59 Lots of these rain organisms, um, decide where to stick to the bottoms of ships based on whether there's a friendly bacteria on the bottom.

Speaker 2: 02:08 For years, Kuma has been investigating why this bacteria attracts Marine gunk. And he's figured out one reason why

Speaker 4: 02:16 the bacteria actually produce this syringe structure that, um, turns out in Jax, a stimulatory protein into the tube worm baby and then causes it to stick to the bottom of the ship.

Speaker 2: 02:30 Picture a stinger on a bumblebee. The insects use stingers to repel enemies and so do bacteria on the bottom of boats. But the problem is tube worms ended up liking it so they stick around to get more. Shakira says in the future these bacteria could be genetically modified to be less attractive to tube worms, but he says that's still theoretical right now. Still, he's not the only scientists coming up with ideas. In fact, the U S Navy has been funding labs across the country address this issue including shuchu Mazu. There are, um, now coatings available that have less toxin in them, which is a positive for the environment. Uh, and we believe as we continue to do the research that we'll only get better. Linda, Chrissy is with the office of Naval research. She says biofouling costs Navy around 200 million a year in lost fuel and cleaning. The Navy uses paints that are less toxic than before, but these paints still have some heavy metals like copper and they don't last long, so it doesn't prevent to berms in the longterm.

Speaker 2: 03:31 And so that's why studying their behavior in the biology is important. If we can recognize what types of features of a surface make that an unappealing surface. We're halfway there in terms of having a coding that is both friendly to the environment as well as helping the Navy solve its problems. The research program has been going on for a while and it will continue, but with discoveries like those from Shikumen, she believes in the next decade the Navy will come closer to developing an effective commercial product. One that's based on nature. The fact that an organism like the tube worm would come to rely on a bacterium to develop. I think it's pretty cool. Back at the pier boat cleaner, Brian Hall isn't worried. The research will put them out of business. That's because boats required care in a lot of different ways. You know, anything that helps prevent bio Falcons is a good thing. Ultimately, if anything, he says finding a solution for a centuries old problem may encourage more people to get a boat.

Speaker 1: 04:28 Andy says it means less toxic chemicals for the Marine environment. Joining me is KPB a science and technology reporter. Shalina Chote Lani and Shalina. Welcome. Hi. Thanks for having me. Is this biofouling the same as barnacles growing on a boat that we've heard about for centuries? Yes. It's all that stuff. It's the barnacles, the algae, the Marine micro organisms that are collecting on the bottom of the boat, um, and packing on a bunch of weight to the hole. So since this is an age old problem, what got you interested in this story? I actually found out that there was a researcher at San Diego state university that had been looking into the issue of biofouling for a while and he made a new discovery of specifically about the relationship between the bacteria, the friendly bacteria that exists on the bottom of the boats and the tube worms that tend to be attracted to the boats.

Speaker 1: 05:21 And so I got very interested in the scientific reasons why bow biofouling has happened for so long. Now, did the researcher at San Diego state tell you where the bacteria that attracts the to worm, where does that bacteria come from? Is it exclusively a Marine bacteria? Um, he didn't say exclusively where it comes from, but it sounds like it is a Marine type of bacteria because biofouling happens on nearly every surface that ends up in the water. Even in freshwater, there's a freshwater algae that tends to collect on surfaces. So he described it as simply a friendly bacteria that exists on the bottom of boats. That researcher said it might be possible to genetically engineer the bacteria so it's not as attractive to, to worms. How would a genetically altered bacteria be introduced into the environment? His idea is that now that we understand the way this mechanism works, we could potentially create some kind of spray or, uh, some kind of product that would latch onto the bacteria and sort of genetically modify them so that they don't, uh, create these syringe like structures that end up attracting these Marine organisms.

Speaker 1: 06:38 Um, to come and stick to the bottom of the boat. He acknowledges it's a theoretical concept. We do have lots of DNA editing tools now. So, you know, it's also very possible as well. Okay. So it sounds like the Navy still coached the bottom of the ships, the hell with a slightly less toxic material to try to keep the biofouling away. Is that still allowed for civilian boats or is that something only the Navy does, so it's still allowed for civilian boats. There's, there's been a long history of, uh, so-called antifouling paints, um, and they've existed just like biofouling since ancient times. Um, some of the, you know, more aggressive paints would have things like arsenic. And so we've really evolved and we've slowly progressed to paints that release toxins into the ocean at a slower rate, so they're still toxic. But there's a lot of discussion happening within the, uh, boating communities as to how to reduce the use of these types of paints as well.

Speaker 1: 07:40 And that's kind of where these scientific solutions to dealing with biofouling, um, are really coming into play now considering that boat hulls have been the home for sea creatures since forever. Um, does that 10 year time frame, the Navy hopes for a solution seem a little ambitious? That was a question that I, uh, posited to Linda, Chrissy, she's the, uh, she's with the office of Naval research and you know, this research program that they've been funding grants around the country for scientists to address this one issue of biofouling. It's been happening for a while. Um, and so there have, she says there have already been commercial products that have come out of it. Uh, they are, they're really good for the, you know, first few times a use them and then eventually, you know, they're less and less effective. So I asked her, you know, how long is it really gonna take to come to a solution? And she's, she seems pretty positive that, you know, within the next 10, 15 years we'll figure out a scientific way of stopping biofouling at its very origins and its biological natural mechanisms. Um, which is what, you know, dr [inaudible] here at San Diego state university has been looking into, so I would say she, yeah, she thinks a 10 to 15 year timeframe is, is doable. It's manageable. Okay. Interesting. I've been speaking with KPBS science and technology reporter Shalina Chut Lani, thank you so much. Thank you.

KPBS Midday Edition Segments podcast branding

KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.