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Rusticles, dark orange rust formations, are shown on the wreck of Titanic. An engineer at Dalhousie University predicts that the entire wreck will be dissolved by natural bacteria in the rusticles. ((Dalhousie University) )

A newly discovered bacteria is eating away at the wreck of the Titanic, which will likely soon be nothing more than a "rust stain" on the ocean floor, says a Dalhousie University engineer.

"Perhaps if we get another 15 to 20 years out of it, we’re doing good.… Eventually there will be nothing left but a rust stain," Henrietta Mann, an adjunct civil engineering professor at the Halifax university, said in a release. 

Mann's prediction comes as she and her team, including researchers from University of Seville in Spain, announced on Monday that they have identified a new bacterial species collected from rusticles from the Titanic wreck. The team has named the iron-oxide munching bacteria Halomonas titanicae.

A rusticle is a dark orange rust formation that looks much like an icicle or stalactite, and the wreck is covered with them. Mann says they formed as a group of at least 27 different strains of bacteria, including Halomonas titanicae, ate their way through the Titanic.

But unlike icicles, which are solid and hard, rusticles are delicate, porous structures that will eventually disintegrate into a fine powder.

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A look at a Titanic rusticle beneath the microscope. Rusticles are porous and water can pass through them. ((Dalhousie University) )

"It’s a natural process, recycling the iron and returning it to nature," said Mann, who studies extreme environments.

The team’s research will be published on Wednesday in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology.

"We don’t know yet whether this species arrived aboard the RMS Titanic before or after it sank. We also don’t know if these bacteria cause similar damage to offshore oil and gas pipelines," said Mann.

"Finding answers to these questions will not only better our understanding of our oceans, but may also equip us to devise coatings that can prevent similar deterioration to other metal structures."

The Titanic, once known as the "unsinkable ship," struck an iceberg in 1912 and sank about 590 kilometres south of Newfoundland, killing 1,522 passengers and crew.

The wreck’s final resting spot remained a mystery until 1985, when a joint American-French expedition found it 3.8 kilometres below the ocean surface. Divers confirmed that the ship had split apart; the stern and the bow were located 600 metres apart from each other and are facing in opposite directions.

While Dan Conlin, curator of maritime history at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, is sorry to see the wreck disintegrating, he points out that scientists know much more about the Titanic than most shipwrecks, "down to the very minute it sunk."

"What is fascinating to me is that we tend to have this idea that these wrecks are time capsules frozen in time, when in fact there all kinds of complex ecosystems feeding off them, even at the bottom of that great dark ocean."

 

 

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story, based on a statement in a Dalhousie University news release, incorrectly said the Titanic is being dissolved at a rate faster than originally predicted by Henrietta Mann. In fact, it is dissolving at the rate that the Dalhousie University engineer originally predicted in 1995.
    Dec 06, 2010 3:40 PM ET