Photograph by Emory Kristof, National Geographic

Read Caption

The rusted prow of the R.M.S. Titanic sits deep in the North Atlantic (file photo).

Photograph by Emory Kristof, National Geographic

New Bacteria Found on Titanic; Eats Metal

The metal-munching bacteria found on the famous wreck may help teach engineers how to protect deep-sea oil rigs, experts say.

A new species of bacteria has been discovered on the sunken hull of the Titanic—and it may be speeding up the decay of the historic wreck, new research reports. (See Titanic pictures.)

Scientists at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, collected samples of the R.M.S. Titanic's icicle-like rust formations, called rusticles, in 1991.

Although the formations were teaming with life, nobody had identified the specific microbes on the ship, instead grouping them into broad categories such as bacteria or fungi.

So Henrietta Mann and then graduate student Bhavleen Kaur, now of the Ontario Science Centre, decided to isolate and identify one species of bacteria from the mess of microscopic life-forms.

The one they chose turned out to be a new species, which the pair dubbed Halomonas titanicae. The bacteria is part of a family that had never been seen before in waters as deep as those in which the Titanic sits, about 2.4 miles (3.8 kilometers) below the surface, Kaur said.

Titanic's Destruction "a Learning Process"

The Titanic sank 98 years ago and sat largely undisturbed on the seafloor until its rediscovery in 1985. Since then researchers have learned that microorganisms, seafloor currents, and the explorers themselves have been hastening the destruction of the ship.

Some experts hope to preserve the wreck by killing the metal-munching bacteria and shielding the boat from currents, allowing tourists and documentary filmmakers to visit Titanic for years to come.

But "letting it proceed with its deterioration is also a learning process," Kaur said. "If we stop and preserve it, then we stop the process of degradation."

Ultimately, such deep-dwelling, metal-eating microbes could teach engineers how to protect offshore oil rigs or dispose of other ships.

Research describing the new bacteria species appears in the December 8 issue of the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology.