This article is from the In-Depth Report The Titanic: 100 Years Later
60-Second Science

Microbes Digest the Titanic's Remains

The destruction of the Titanic, started by a huge iceberg, will be finished by tiny, iron-eating bacteria. Karen Hopkin reports

In the spring of 1912 an iceberg in the Atlantic took down the Titanic. Now, some humble bacteria are trying to finish the job. Scientists analyzing rust from the sunken ship have discovered a new species of microbe that eats iron. Their findings are described in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology. [Cristina Sánchez-Porro et al., "Halomonas titanicae sp. nov., a halophilic bacterium isolated from the RMS Titanic"]

Researchers have been studying the Titanic’s remains since they were discovered resting more than two miles beneath the ocean surface. And they’ve found that the ship has been not-so-slowly disappearing. Visitors have removed artifacts, and the hull is festooned with rusticles: icicle-shaped accretions of iron oxide, otherwise known as rust.

Nearly 20 years ago scientists took samples of that rust, and found that it harbors a mix of iron-munching microbes. Now, analyzing the DNA of these organisms, researchers have catalogued more than two dozen strains of bacteria, including a new one they’ve dubbed Halomonas titanicae.

The bacteria are bad news for the Titanic, which may only last another 20 years, say the scientists. The good news is such bugs could be used to hasten the decay of other, less cinematic wrecks.

—Karen Hopkin

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

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