New metal-eating bacteria found on Titanic
December 11th, 2010
06:17 PM ET

New metal-eating bacteria found on Titanic

Bacteria scooped from the wreckage of the Titanic almost 20 years ago have been confirmed as a new species in the December issue of a microbiology journal.

While new scientific discoveries are usually heralded as joyous news, this discovery is bittersweet.

The bacteria, found on the ship's "rusticles" (rust formations that look like icicles), are eating the Titanic.

The strain, dubbed Halomonas titanicae, was initially designated BH1T in honor of the researchers who discovered it, then-graduate student Bhavleen Kaur and Dr. Henrietta Mann at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.

The researchers tested the bacteria to see whether it was "good bacteria" or "bad bacteria," according to the school's website.

Let's just say the bug has an appetite for destruction.

"The BH1 cells stuck to the surface of these [small metal tags] and eventually destroyed the metal. So we knew we had a bad bacteria,” Mann is quoted as saying on the Dalhousie University website.

"In 1995, I was predicting that Titanic had another 30 years," said Mann, who still works at the university, according to CBS News. "But I think it's deteriorating much faster than that now ... Eventually there will be nothing left but a rust stain," she is quoted as saying.

The metal-eating bug presents a dilemma for scientists.

"Letting it proceed with its deterioration is also a learning process," said Kaur, who now works with the Ontario Science Centre, according to National Geographic. "If we stop and preserve it, then we stop the process of degradation," Kaur is quoted as saying.

The findings were published in the December 8 issue of the  International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology.

The Titanic, heralded in its day as the largest passenger ship in the world, sank on its maiden voyage in 1912, killing more than 1,500 people. The wreckage was found in 1985 by an expedition team more than 2 miles deep in the Atlantic Ocean.

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Filed under: History • Nature
soundoff (188 Responses)
  1. Ryan Winter

    LET IT GO. What is this ridiculous fascination with a 100 year old piece of rust. What about all the thousands of other people that died in ships in World War II? Don't they count? The faster that thing rust and is gone–the better.

    December 11, 2010 at 9:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Paul Hauser

      Fascination? More like obsession. Who gives a crap anymore?

      December 12, 2010 at 12:31 am | Report abuse |
  2. db

    What happens to all the garbage and junk that is sent out to sea from New York City and other places? Does it just pile up or does it degrade by micro bugs too?

    December 11, 2010 at 10:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Holly

      It goes to landfills in surrounding states. Fresh Kills is no longer in use.

      December 11, 2010 at 10:33 pm | Report abuse |
  3. David, Tampa

    Sooner or later everything laying on the bottom ends up in the Mariana Trench at the speed of a growing fingernail; Says NATGO

    December 11, 2010 at 10:12 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Junior

    Exactly! Let the planet be, it has lived for billions of years and knows best what to do.. Stop interfering with nature; on one side this scientist are concerned about "GLOBAL WARMING" and then when they see the planet repairing itself, they want to stop it, that ship TO THE OCEAN is nothing more than a contaminating piece of garbage and this bacteria is its defence mechanism to clear its waters.

    December 11, 2010 at 10:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Junior league

      Right, Poseidon summons the bacteria to clear his waters.

      December 11, 2010 at 10:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe Brown

      The ocean does not contemplate itself. TO YOU it is garbage; but in fact it is now PART OF the ocean, just as fertilizer and pesticides, even Prozac, are now part of the ocean.

      People tend to anthropomorphize. It's a bad (i.e., non-objective) habit, and it's at the heart of religion–everything seen as subject to the hegemony of humans. Pure hubris.

      December 12, 2010 at 6:55 am | Report abuse |
  5. SP

    It is mans waste in the water and we are next.

    December 11, 2010 at 10:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe Brown

      I agree with your sentiment but this too imposes human values ("waste") on a Nature which is unconcerned with making judgments. Some words ("weed") reveal more about the speaker than about the subject matter.

      The fact that humans contribute to their own destruction by overusing resources, as you suggest, remains true.

      December 12, 2010 at 7:11 am | Report abuse |
  6. mechatronics

    It's nature doing what it's supposed to do.

    December 11, 2010 at 10:25 pm | Report abuse |
  7. A.

    Why not just try and raise thy vessel?

    December 11, 2010 at 10:26 pm | Report abuse |
  8. A

    Imagine you are eating a delicious steak, but somebody decides that you are bad human because of that. That's a scary thought.Whould you pas me A1 sauce please? It's that important!

    December 11, 2010 at 10:28 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Jerry

    Just remember; "Rust Never Sleeps"

    December 11, 2010 at 10:42 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Thomas

    Thank goodness precious metals are exempt. Im greedy that way. .

    December 11, 2010 at 10:42 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Head Elf

    I suspect that this bacteria is everywhere in the ocean in very small amounts and only thrives where masses of iron lay. Once the ship is consumed, which may take yet a while, the bacteria will all but die out at this site and not regrow until another ship sinks. It's a lot like how various higher organisms and bacteria collect around a sunken whale carcass until it is gone.

    In shallower water there are a lot of other factors at work to erode a wreck so the iron-eating bacteria doesn't get much of a chance to do its slow digestion. Recent photos of WWII wrecks show them still mostly protected by their original lead-based paint and free of rusticles.

    December 11, 2010 at 10:48 pm | Report abuse |
  12. rick springfield

    They have a big chunk of it at the Luxor in Vegas. Its the biggest part brought up to date. They carefully removed the bacteria and sealed it in an oil coating. It takes your breath away. They also sell the chunks of coal found on the ocean floor for $40 per piece. Its about the size of a finger tip. There is another display in Branson, MO but they don't have a large piece of the hull. Both locations do have rather good depictions of what it looked like when it came to a rest on the ocean floor.

    December 11, 2010 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
  13. J

    Rust never sleeps

    December 11, 2010 at 10:54 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Ian

    I covered this for my 8th grade science fair project back in 1998. I didn't win.

    December 11, 2010 at 10:55 pm | Report abuse |
  15. john

    BRING HER UP

    December 11, 2010 at 11:20 pm | Report abuse |
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