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University of Missouri

Fighting the Film Industry

MU undergraduate helps battle troublesome biofilms on boats and wounds.

Sophomore biology major Anjaleque Bragg researches the bacteria that attach to the hulls of ships and form biofilms.  Public domain photo.

Sophomore biology major Anjaleque Bragg researches the bacteria that attach to the hulls of ships and form biofilms. Public domain photo.

The problem has vexed sailors since humans took to the seas. A 2002 estimate put the annual cost to the U.S. Navy at $1 billion.

Anjaleque Bragg, a 19-year-old sophomore in biology, thought she’d take a crack at it.

It’s called biofouling, and it happens when small marine organisms and biological matter adhere to the hulls of ships. The underwater stowaways increase drag on the vessels, reducing their speed and increasing their fuel consumption.

The Navy traditionally combatted biofouling with copper-based coatings, but such coatings are poisonous to the environment and humans, and their use has become increasingly regulated. Bragg and her mentor, Pamela Brown, assistant professor of biological sciences, are searching for agents that can safely attack the bacteria that attach to the hulls of ships and form biofilms, the proverbial “foot in the door” of the biofouling process.

Bragg, from Columbia, spent a portion of summer 2013 testing two potential bacteria predators, and she came back for more in the fall. “This project seemed interesting [because of] the real-world applications,” she says.

Those applications also include wound care. Bacteria in wounds form the same kinds of biofilms, protecting them from antibiotics and making them harder to kill.

Bragg hasn’t solved the biofilm problem yet, but she’s already decided to switch her career goal from being a doctor toward being a researcher.