BioF(3)By Julia Turner, Office of Media Relations

Neeraj Gohad, an assistant research professor in the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences, is thinking big about small things. His research on biofouling has the potential to save millions in ship maintenance and exceptionally lowering the usage of fossil fuels for the naval and maritime fleets.

Funded by the Office of Naval Research, Gohad is the first researcher to take a new perspective on biofouling — the infestation of marine pests that latch permanently onto the undersides of ships. The infestation ultimately weighs and slows them down, increases costs for ships that must incur frequent cleanings and if left unchecked, can compromise a ship’s structure.

To address this issue, Gohad is using technology that is readily found at leading neuroscience research facilities, but interestingly enough, unusual to marine biology. He is taking a deeper look at how barnacles and crustaceans are attaching onto ships using 2-Photon Microscopy. With his funding, Gohad has built his own 2-Photon Microscope in Andrew Mount’s Okeanos Research Group in Biological Sciences. What came from this was ground breaking.

“What we found was that the adhesive [of the barnacles] was actually a dual-phase system and the two phases of the adhesive behaved separately. We think this ability of barnacle cyprid adhesives to interact preferentially with different surfaces gives the barnacle ability to attach to a very broad range of surfaces,” the researcher explained and is now working to better characterize the two phases. What this ultimately means is that Gohad — with the help of a team that has backgrounds over a broad range of sciences — is working to a find an antifouling surface that will significantly decrease biofouling with no harmful environmental effects.

Earlier antifouling strategies harmed the marine environment

Previously, other attempts antifouling strategies have not been environmentally friendly. In earlier times, Tributyltin (TBT) was the preferred biocide in antifouling paints used to coat ship hulls and was used extensively by naval and maritime fleets across the world. Although extremely effective, the substance presented detrimental environmental consequences, eventually forcing the United Nations Law of the Sea to ban it globally in 2008. Today’s antifouling paints are primarily copper-based, but that is proving to be damaging as well, leaving the heavy metal in the water and contaminating the marine sediment in heavily trafficked ports.

Gohad’s research has been extremely promising; by studying mechanisms used by organisms to adhere sense surfaces gives him a leg up on engineering environmentally-benign antifouling surface. His research could save millions of dollars and a large amount of fuel, while also helping the environment. Using polymer science, Gohad hopes to make the surface ‘unattractive’ to the sea pests without harming the animals in the process. This would not only allow for the marine life to thrive, but would keep the spreading of invasive fouling to a minimum — which ultimately will keep the ecosystems in balance as stowaway crustaceans and molluscs from one port often times end up contaminating other ports after a ships voyage.

Succeeding through diverse perspectives

Gohad’s research is successful not only because of what he’s doing, but because of who he’s doing it with. Instead of confining his research to one area, Gohad has reached outside his area of expertise to enlist the help of scientists from other research disciplines. This cross-disciplinary approach allows for new and different perspectives on their research, expanding horizons and adding layers to the study — and the results.

“We have biologists, chemists and polymer scientists, all working together on one project,” Gohad said. “Apart they can do good science, but when crossing those lines and trying to reach out to those other disciplines of science; it’s only then you can do truly great science.”

Neeraj Gohad is an assistant research professor at Clemson and vice president of Clemson’s chapter of Sigma Xi, the scientific research society. He earned his Ph.D. in biological sciences from Clemson in 2008. Gohad’s research debuted on the cover of Journal of Experimental Biology in June and is currently being funded by the Office of Naval Research.