It may have been an iceberg that sunk the Titanic, but it is a bacterium that is slowly destroying its remains on the ocean floor, scientists said on Monday.
Microorganisms collected from a “rusticle” — a structure that looks like an icicle, but consists of rust — are slowly destroying the iron hull of the liner on the seabed 3.8km below the Atlantic waves where it plummeted, killing 1,517 people, in April 1912.
The newly identified species, while potentially dangerous to vital underwater installations, such as offshore oil and gas pipelines, could also offer a new way to recycle iron from old ships and marine structures, according to the researchers from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, and Seville University in Spain.
The discovery of the bacterium, now named Halomonas titanicae, will be reported in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology today. When the researchers tested its rusting ability in the lab, they found that it was able to adhere to steel surfaces, creating knob-like mounds of corrosion products.
A similar process is thought to be responsible for the formation of the rusticles on the hull of the Titanic. They appear to be solid structures, but are highly porous and support a complex variety of bacteria, suggesting that H. titanicae and other organisms may accelerate the corrosion of steel. Lead researchers Bhavleen Kaur and Henrietta Mann from Dalhousie University say the role of microbes in this process is only now starting to be understood.
“We believe H. titanicae plays a part in the recycling of iron structures at certain depths. This could be useful in 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,” Kaur said.
The scientists said the findings may have industrial applications.
“We don’t know yet whether this species arrived aboard the RMS Titanic before or after it sank. We also don’t know if these bacteria cause similar damage to offshore oil and gas pipelines. Finding answers to these questions will not only better our understanding of our oceans, but may also equip us to devise coatings that can prevent similar deterioration to other metal structures,” they said.