Instead, sharks have an outer layer of hard scales that flex against one another and rest on an underlying layer of elastic skin. The structure helps sharks swim efficiently and minimizes the area to which organisms can adhere.
Liedert's synthetic version mimics this composition with silicone, in hopes that the scale structure is what gives sharks their biofouling defense.
Research has "shown that barnacle cement is not capable of penetrating very deeply in the grooves between the microstructures of artificial shark skin," Liedert said. "Therefore, barnacles have only a very little effective contact surface on which they stick."
Liedert's most successful "skin" reduced barnacle settlement by 67 percent in North Sea tests. It also enabled ships to clean off any organisms that tentatively attached themselves, simply by traveling at speeds of just four to five knots (about five to six miles an hour).
Liedert presented his findings at the Society for Experimental Biology Annual Main Meeting in Barcelona, Spain.
Research on similar synthetic skins has been ongoing for years, but success has proven elusive.
"The solution to this problem has been hard to achieve," said Kjelleberg, of the University of New South Wales, "because surfaces submerged in seawater absorb the various chemicals, proteins, and organic material and themselves become modified."
Meanwhile, ecologically friendly paints have been difficult to develop, not to mention expensive.
Liedert reports that the cost of his artificial sharkskin is similar to that of commonly used antifouling paints, though a method of applying the skin to ship hulls remains a lingering technical hurdle.
"It's a bit more complicated than just to paint the ship in the conventional way," he said. "But we are working on a solution."
Free E-Mail News Updates
Sign up for our Inside National Geographic newsletter. Every two weeks we'll send you our top stories and pictures (see sample).