Misfortune continues to take a bite out of the world's most famous ocean liner – literally. Twenty-five years after the RMS Titanic's ocean grave was discovered a few hundred miles off the coast of Newfoundland, researchers have identified a new bacteria feeding on the great ship's hulk. The scientists believe that the new micro-organism may work with a complex variety of bacteria, which inhabit a microscopic world inside porous mounds of rusty stalactites called rusticles, to break down metal into a fine powder.
It's been almost 100 years since the unsinkable RMS Titanic was crippled by an iceberg on its maiden voyage, claiming the lives of 1,517 people. The actual location of the wreck wasn't discovered until 1985, when a joint American-French operation found a split hull some 2.33 miles (3.8km) under the ocean, a few hundred miles from the coast of Newfoundland. What remains of the iconic ship's 50,000 tons of iron is fast disappearing, and researchers believe that very soon there will be nothing left but a rusty outline to mark its grave.
Working with scientists from the University of Sevilla in Spain, Dr Bhavleen Kaur and Dr Henrietta Mann from Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada have now identified a brand-new species of bacteria using DNA technology. The team isolated the new micro-organisms from a "rusticle" – a dark orange rusty icicle – recovered from the famous ship.
They found that the knob-like mounds on the surface of the steel are home to at least 27 strains of bacteria. Although the rusticles look fairly solid, they are in fact delicate and highly porous, and allow water to pass through. The structure suggests that the new microbe – a member of the Halomonadaceae family and fittingly named Halomonas titanicae by the researchers – may in fact work with others to hasten the breakdown of iron oxide in the hull.
"In 1995, I was predicting that Titanic had another 30 years," said Dr. Mann, adjunct professor with the Department of Civil Engineering. "But I think it's deteriorating much faster than that now ... Eventually there will be nothing left but a rust stain."
It's not all bad news, however. The team believes that some good may come out of the discovery, suggesting that further investigation could be beneficial to "the disposal of old naval and merchant ships and oil rigs that have been cleaned of toxins and oil-based products and then sunk in the deep ocean."
Further study could also result in the development of protective coatings to safeguard working vessels from corrosion. The team has called for more research to try and determine if the new micro-organism was a stow-away, aboard before the great ship sank, or whether it arrived after the disaster.
The findings have been published in the latest edition of International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology.
In related news, a permanent Titanic exhibition at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, which has one of the rusticles on display, is due to get a refresh to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the disaster.
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