Barnacles Help Battle Biofilms

July 10, 2011

Tim Lucas, 919-613-8084,

DURHAM, N.C. – By exploiting barnacles’ remarkable natural clinging ability, an international team of researchers has anchored antibacterial “polymer brushes” to the surface of steel. This could prevent the formation of dangerous bacterial biofilms on the surface of medical devices.

The team’s groundbreaking work was published in May in Langmuir, ( a publication of the American Chemical Society. Authors of the study included Daniel Rittschof, Lee Hill Snowdon Professor of Ecology at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, and Gary H. Dickinson, a researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Tropical Marine Science Institute and a former PhD student of Rittschof’s at the Nicholas School.

Rittschof teaches and conducts research at the Duke University Marine Laboratory in Beaufort, N.C. The lab is part of the Nicholas School.

In their study, the researchers coated stainless steel with a thin layer of cement harvested fromAmphibalanus amphitrite barnacles. They then used the cement to initiate the growth of polymer chains of 2-hydroxethyl methacrylate, which was coupled with chitosan, an antibacterial molecule. By treated the steel in this way, they were able to lower the adhesion of E coli bacteria and cut its survival to less than 20 percent.

The editors of Nature spotlighted the study as a “Community Choice” pick in their July 7 issue, and noted that it is one of the most highly read papers in recent science.

Other authors were En-Tang Kang, Wen Jing Yang, Tao Chi, Koon-Gee Neoh and Serena Lay-Ming Teo, all of the National University of Singapore.

Rittschof is widely cited for his work on the functions, mechanisms, and evolution of chemical signaling and communication systems. The potential commercial applications of his work include the development of nontoxic antifouling coatings and development of novel (nonchemically based) antifouling technology.