"Environment" research area

Disrupting Bacterial Communication to Reduce Biocorrosion of Minnesota’s Maritime Transportation Infrastructure

Primary Investigator - Randall HicksPrimary InvestigatorRandall Hicks
Co-Investigators: 
Mikael Elias (Co-PI)
Industry PartnersAMI Consulting Engineers
Award Type: Seed Grant - Postdoctoral Research Sholar

Problem: Communities around the Great Lakes rely on maritime transportation to support the iron ore, slab steel, low sulfur coal, and non-ferrous metal industries, as well as tourism and boating. Ports in Lake Superior that are essential to these industries are facing accelerated loss of infrastructure as microbial biofilms corrode steel in the aquatic environment.

Solution: The biofilms that corrode docks, piers, and bulkheads in Lake Superior rely on quorum sensing, a type of bacterial cell communication, to colonize the steel surfaces. The Hicks Lab will disrupt this bacterial communication using a lactonase enzyme coating and test how the disruption affects biofilm formation and rate of corrosion. Lactonase has been successful in initial 2-month trials, but the MnDRIVE researchers will now investigate the enzyme’s effectiveness throughout a full year in the lake environment.

Impact: The Duluth-Superior Harbor, the largest port in the Great Lakes, has a $200 million annual impact on Minnesota’s economy. A solution for microbial corrosion of steel surfaces would protect this and other ports’ economic activities by reducing the rate of infrastructure loss. The novel lactonase-based approach could be patented by the University of Minnesota as an important solution for a widespread issue in the Great Lakes maritime transportation.