News24

Bacteria 'munching on Titanic'

2012-04-11 09:40

Halifax - 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 3 780m to the ocean floor revealed the formation of rust similar to icicles or stalactites in appearance hanging off the massive ship. They normally occur underwater when wrought iron oxidises.

Mann, a biologist and geologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, obtained samples from the Bedford Institute of Oceanography and scrutinised 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.

Tremendous loss of heritage


"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.

Bacteria will eventually dispose of it all.

Comments
  • ludlowdj - 2012-04-11 09:56

    It was only a few days ago we had another report where they said the Titanic is not disintegrating and would be around for hundreds of years, their concern being a build up of litter at the site??????????

      kritzinger - 2012-04-11 10:18

      Exactly my issue. Aside from that, when you do read about the microbial disintegration of the wreck, the estimated lifespan is anywhere from 150 to 30 years. I think it's time science stepped up and said, "Ef it, nobody knows. Let's just enjoy the thing at a leisurely pace until we're bored with it"

      kritzinger - 2012-04-11 10:18

      Exactly my issue. Aside from that, when you do read about the microbial disintegration of the wreck, the estimated lifespan is anywhere from 150 to 30 years. I think it's time science stepped up and said, "Ef it, nobody knows. Let's just enjoy the thing at a leisurely pace until we're bored with it"

      wesleywt - 2012-04-12 06:05

      I suppose you guys also think you wash your cloths with soap and it becomes clean. The reason why washing powder is so effective is because it contains enzymes isolated from bacteria such as this one. Its the enzymes eating the starch and fat from your dishes when you use the dishwashing liquid. When you keep your head in the sand and think things just happen and science doesn't do anything affect your life, you miss out on a lot.

      wesleywt - 2012-04-12 06:05

      I suppose you guys also think you wash your cloths with soap and it becomes clean. The reason why washing powder is so effective is because it contains enzymes isolated from bacteria such as this one. Its the enzymes eating the starch and fat from your dishes when you use the dishwashing liquid. When you keep your head in the sand and think things just happen and science doesn't do anything affect your life, you miss out on a lot.

      kritzinger - 2012-04-12 07:16

      Wesley, I should imagine your legs are tired from jumping to so many conclusions. Don't insult me by assuming I take science for granted. I'm fascinated by nature's ability to reclaim what was once it's own. I've been to Chernobyl, possibly the best display of the disintegration of man-made structures. My head is very much above the sand, thank you. The point I was making here is that, in this particular, circumstances are such that the actual science behind calculating the lifespan is so hit and miss that the effort would be better spent elsewhere.

      kritzinger - 2012-04-12 07:16

      Wesley, I should imagine your legs are tired from jumping to so many conclusions. Don't insult me by assuming I take science for granted. I'm fascinated by nature's ability to reclaim what was once it's own. I've been to Chernobyl, possibly the best display of the disintegration of man-made structures. My head is very much above the sand, thank you. The point I was making here is that, in this particular, circumstances are such that the actual science behind calculating the lifespan is so hit and miss that the effort would be better spent elsewhere.

      kritzinger - 2012-04-12 07:50

      Oh and PS. I have it on good authority that your Sunlight Liquid works thanks to emulsifying agents, not enzymes. Got some sand in your teeth there bud...

      kritzinger - 2012-04-12 07:50

      Oh and PS. I have it on good authority that your Sunlight Liquid works thanks to emulsifying agents, not enzymes. Got some sand in your teeth there bud...

      wesleywt - 2012-04-12 08:05

      Your authority is wrong. Unilever washing powders for example, because the expert that formulates them is visiting our laboratory, has proteases, lipases, cellulases including surfactants and non-chlorine bleach. The enzymes are coated in titanium oxide.

      wesleywt - 2012-04-12 08:05

      Your authority is wrong. Unilever washing powders for example, because the expert that formulates them is visiting our laboratory, has proteases, lipases, cellulases including surfactants and non-chlorine bleach. The enzymes are coated in titanium oxide.

  • ludlowdj - 2012-04-12 07:42

    @WesleyWT Like HalfLoaf says try reading our comments again and this time don't go off on a tangent. Less than a week ago there was an article about how the titanic was not being eaten by bacteria as presumed and the biggest problem was "junk" in the form of litter and memorials being left at the site. Maybe you should pull your own head out of the sand long enough to keep up with current events.

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