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Bacteria Eats Away At RMS Titanic
January 2011

The greatest piece of material evidence regarding the sinking of the Titanic—the wreck itself—may soon be lost, says a researcher at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia who has been examining the bacteria eating away at the so-called “unsinkable ship” as it sits on the ocean bottom.

The view of rusticles on the wreck of RMS TITANIC. Image courtesy of RMS Titanic Inc.

“In 1995, I was predicting that Titanic had another 30 years,” says Henrietta Mann, adjunct professor with Dalhousie’s Department of Civil Engineering.

“But I think it’s deteriorating much faster than that now. Perhaps if we get another 15 to 20 years out of it, we’re doing good … Eventually there will be nothing left but a rust stain.”

Using DNA technology, Dr. Mann and Bhavleen Kaur from Dalhousie University and researchers from University of Sevilla in Spain were able to identify a new bacterial species collected from rusticles from the Titanic wreck. The iron-oxide munching bacteria from the family Halomonadaceae has fittingly been named Halomonas titanicae.

Their research was published recently in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology.

Dark orange in colour, a rusticle is a formation of rust similar in shape to an icicle or stalactite. The wreck is covered with the knob-like mounds, formed as a “consortium” of at least 27 strains of bacteria, including Halomonas titanicae, makes a meal out of Titanic.

But unlike icicles which are solid and hard, rusticles are porous and allow water to pass through. Indeed, they are rather delicate and will eventually disintegrate into fine powder. “It’s a natural process, recycling the iron and returning it to nature,” says Dr. Mann, a scientist who studies extreme environments.

For decades following the sinking in 1912, the Titanic’s final resting spot remained a mystery. Discovered by a joint American-French expedition in 1985, the wreck is located 3.8 kilometres below the ocean surface and some 530 kilometres southeast of Newfoundland. The discovery confirmed that the ship had split apart; the stern and the bow were located 600 metres apart from each other and are facing in opposite directions.

In the 25 years since the discovery of the wreck, Titanic has rapidly deteriorated.

But while the disintegration of Titanic means preservation is impossible on the ocean floor, the bacteria may be useful in accelerating the disposal of other old ships and oil rigs. Further, it could also help scientists develop paints or protective coatings to guard against the bacteria for working vessels.

But Dr Mann admits it’s the fact that the bacteria comes from Titanic that gives it such cache.

“I remember when I first saw those iron crystals under the microscope,” she says. “Knowing it came from Titanic makes it all the more intriguing. We all know the story. It’s everyone’s history.”

While the loss of the wreck over time concerns Dan Conlin, curator of maritime history at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, he notes scientists know much more about the Titanic than most shipwrecks—“down to the very minute it sunk.”

“What is fascinating to me is that we tend to have this idea that these wrecks are time capsules frozen in time, when in fact there all kinds of complex ecosystems feeding off them, even at the bottom of that great dark ocean.”

As part of its Titanic exhibition, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic has one of the rusticles from the wreck on display, along with a picture of Titanic’s encrusted bow as seen through porthole of a submersible. More artifacts are coming in all the time to the museum’s prized collection, which includes fragments of oak carvings, a perfectly preserved Titanic deckchair and the wireless log kept by by the wireless operator at Cape Race, Newfoundland which includes the records of Titanic’s distress calls the night of April 14th and 15th, 1912.

The permanent exhibition is getting a refresh to coincide with the 100th anniversary in 2012 of Titanic’s sinking. ##

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