On the night of April 14-15, 1912, as it sped off Newfoundland, the Titanic struck an iceberg. It sinks in less than three hours, making about 1,500 victims. For a hundred years, the wreck sits at the bottom of the water, at a depth of 3,800 meters, where the lack of light and the enormous pressure make the area hostile to life, which should normally slow down its corrosion.
However, the wreck would be disappearing! Indeed, its metal parts are being eaten by a bacterium that can withstand extreme conditions. According to some researchers, there could be nothing left of the ship in 14 to 20 years, reports the BBC.
“Unfortunately, it is impossible to preserve the Titanic”
In 2010, a team of Canadian scientists discovered the presence of a bacterium on a rust sample belonging to the Titanic and recovered in 1991: they named it Halomonas titanicae. It belongs to the genus Halomonas, a robust group of bacteria that can withstand extreme conditions, which kills most other organisms (heat, high salinity and pressure, lack of oxygen, total darkness). The most notable feature among this kind of bacteria is their ability to survive very hostile salty environments. In 2016, French scientists had demonstrated, using a neutron beam imaging technique, that Halomonas uses a molecule, ectoin, to survive fluctuations in salt concentrations in water.
“Unfortunately, given that the Titanic is 3,800 meters deep, it is impossible to preserve it,” regrets Henrietta Mann, professor at Dalhousie University and co-discoverer of Halomonas titanicae. I hope our work will advance our understanding of Halomonas bacteria. There are oil rigs, iron pipes and other structures in the ocean that can deteriorate in the same way as the Titanic. Knowing how to protect them would be very helpful. ”
Halomonas titanicae is not the only bacteria that likes to lodge in wrecks. Multiple micro-organisms colonize ships as soon as they reach the seabed. They quickly build viscous films on all available surfaces, called “biofilms”. The latter provide a refuge for corals, sponges and molluscs, which in turn attract larger animals. Soon, the wreck becomes a kind of artificial reef where many species live.