Bacteria 'munching' on Titanic: scientists

Apr 10, 2012
Biologist Henrietta Mannon watches as volunteers at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, finish a model of the RMS Titanic on April 3. In less than 30 years, there may be nothing left of the Titanic but a heap of "rusticles," warns Mann, who has spent four years researching bacteria gnawing on its sunken hull.

In less than 30 years, there may be nothing left of the Titanic but a heap of "rusticles," warns researcher Henrietta Mann, who has spent four years researching bacteria gnawing on its sunken hull.

A scientific expedition in 1991 to the disintegrating wreck some 12,400 feet (3,780 meters) to the revealed the formation of rust similar to icicles or stalactites in appearance hanging off the massive ship. They normally occur underwater when wrought iron oxidizes.

Mann, a biologist and geologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, obtained samples from the Bedford Institute of Oceanography and scrutinized them under an electronic microscope. She discovered that bacteria, not a chemical process, were behind these particular deep water formations.

The Canadian researcher identified dozens of bacteria, including one never seen before, which she dubbed Halomonas Titanicae, that had been "munching" on the steel hull and busily transforming it, atom by atom, into rusticles, some as tall as men.

Invisible to the naked eye, measuring only 1.6 micrometers in length, the bacteria have multiplied into billions over the years.

"The Titanic is 50,000 tons of steel," Mann told AFP. "So, there is plenty of food for my bacteria."

The bacteria also appear to find delicious the ship's windows, stairways, and gates -- all made of rough iron -- as well as its cast iron furnaces. "They eat these as well," Mann said. Only the brass is not being touched.

"I don't know the speed of eating of the iron by the bacteria," but comparing the earliest photos of the wreck with the latest it is clear that rapid change is occurring.

"Maybe in 20 or 30 years the wreck will collapse (into a) heap of rust," she said.

Mann recorded 27 bacteria living in the rusticles, some with tentacles, as well as tube worms and other tiny creatures, in a "symbiotic colony."

The first of them were likely created by diatom (unicellular algae) in "marine snow" -- dirt from the surface. One bacteria then produced others and together they formed a chain and then a net, more bacteria grew over the net and holes filled in and finally the structures hardened into rusticles with channels inside where water circulates. "Its structure is like a sponge," Mann explained.

The disintegration of the Titanic would certainly mean a tremendous loss of heritage, says Mann. But at the same time her discovery offers hope: all of the old ships, oil rigs and cargo that fall to the bottom of the sea will not pile up like garbage.

will eventually dispose of it all.

Explore further: New knowledge about host-virus coevolution unmasked from the genomic record

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

New microscopic life aboard the RMS Titanic

Dec 06, 2010

A brand-new bacterial species has been found aboard the RMS Titanic, which is contributing to its deterioration. The discovery reveals a potential new microbial threat to the exterior of ships and underwater ...

Expedition Titanic gets underway

Aug 20, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- A 20-day expedition aiming to create a virtual 3-D map of the R.M.S. Titanic wreck site is about to leave St. Johns in Newfoundland carrying the latest technologies and dozens of scientists ...

A Zen discovery: Unrusted iron in ocean

Feb 08, 2009

Iron dust, the gold of the oceans and rarest nutrient for most marine life, can be washed down by rivers or blown out to sea or - a surprising new study finds - float up from the sea floor. The discovery, ...

The earliest blacksmiths may have been bacteria

Oct 16, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- Talk about a Cold Case. This mystery goes back to when there was no oxygen on the planet and bacteria were the most sophisticated life form. But Kurt Konhauser holds a clue to answering some ...

Recommended for you

Devising a way to count proteins as they group

4 hours ago

A new study from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and University of California Berkeley researchers reports on an innovative theoretical methodology to solve "the counting problem," which is key to understanding ...

Mysteries of 'molecular machines' revealed

5 hours ago

"Inside each cell in our bodies and inside every bacterium and virus are tiny but complex protein molecules that synthesize chemicals, replicate genetic material, turn each other on and off, and transport ...

Bacteria are wishing you a Merry Xmas

11 hours ago

A bacterium has been used to wish people a Merry Xmas. Grown by Dr Munehiro Asally, an Assistant Professor at the University of Warwick, the letters used to spell MERRY XMAS are made of Bacillus subtilis, ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.