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By Jasmin Fox-Skelly 5 February When it set sail on its maiden voyage in , no one could have predicted what the opulent RMS Titanic would look like now — a rusting hulk at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. But at least something remains of the ship, more than a century after its ill-fated transatlantic journey. However, scientists believe that in a few decades there may be nothing left of the ship at all, thanks to a species of bacteria which is slowly eating away its iron hull.

Robert Ballard, an oceanographer at the University of Rhode Island in Narragansett, discovered the wreck of the Titanic in It just happened that the Titanic was found between the two wrecks.

At the time of that initial discovery the ship was remarkably preserved. Fast-forward 30 years, though, and the hull is rusting away, thanks to metal-munching bacteria. Some researchers now give the shipwreck just another 14 years before it is gone forever.

View image of The Titanic sank on its maiden voyage Credit: The story started in when scientists from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada collected samples of icicle-like formations of rust — "rusticles" — hanging from the ship. They took them back to the lab and saw that they were teeming with life. But it was not until that a separate group of scientists, led by Henrietta Mann at Dalhousie University, decided to identify what type of life it was.

The hull is rusting away, thanks to metal-munching bacteria They isolated just one species of bacteria, and it turned out to be brand new to science. Mann and her colleagues named it Halomonas titanicae after the ship.

The bacteria can survive in conditions that are completely inhospitable to most lifeforms on Earth: But it has inherited another, even more astonishing trick. Halomonas bacteria are often found living in another type of extreme environment: Here, the salinity of water can vary dramatically because of evaporation, and Halomonas bacteria have evolved to cope with the problem.

If the water that bathes cells is too salty, water will rush out of cells, causing them to shrink, collapse and die. However, too little salt can be just as deadly. For instance, red blood cells placed in pure water burst as water floods in. Both of these events happen because water "wants" to move from an area of high water concentration to an area of low water concentration, a phenomenon known as osmosis. View image of Halomonas bacteria often live in salt marshes Credit: Salts, sugars and other small molecules all dissolve in water, clogging it up and taking up space, meaning that there is less space for the water itself.

When these areas of low water concentration come into contact with pure water, the water will rush in to equalise the balance, in much the same way that warm air rushes out of a house in winter when the door is opened. As cell membranes are permeable to water, this means that all lifeforms are extremely sensitive to external and internal salt levels.

They isolated just one species of bacteria, and it turned out to be brand new to science To stop their cells from bursting or shrinking, many species produce compounds like sugars or amino acids that keep the concentration of "stuff" inside their cells stable relative to the outside, stopping water flooding in or gushing out. However, not many organisms can do so to the extent that Halomonas bacteria can.

Joe Zaccai at the Institut Laue—Langevin in Grenoble, France is part of an international team of scientists who have analysed just how the bacteria can survive in such extreme and variable conditions.

They found that Halomonas uses a molecule called ectoine to protect itself from osmotic pressure. As the outside salt concentration fluctuates so will the ectoine concentration response. However, this adaptation can be highly dangerous for an organism.

View image of Halomonas bacteria can survive high levels of salt Credit: Other chemicals can dissolve in it, and can react together. The reactions of life need to take place in a solution, which is why all our cells are bathed in liquid water.

Microbes colonise a shipwreck almost immediately after the ship comes to rest on the seafloor This layer of water, known as a "hydration shell", is crucial to maintain the correct folding of proteins, and in turn their function. If this was disrupted, then the proteins could unravel and fall apart, which would kill the cell. To investigate how, the scientists led by Zaccai bombarded the bacteria with a beam of neutrons.

There are few places in the world that are equipped for such experiments. The researchers worked at the Institut Laue Langevin, one of a handful of neutron research centres in the world. That is because, when the ectoine forms hydrogen bonds with water, it forms large clusters that will not fit on the surfaces of proteins and membranes, so only pure water can remain. The shipwreck becomes a kind of artificial reef, home to a plethora of life Initial investigations of H.

However, it is not clear how, or if, this salt tolerance has helped it colonise the shipwreck. Various types of microbes colonise a shipwreck almost immediately after the ship comes to rest on the seafloor. They quickly build gooey sticky films over every available surface, called "biofilms". These biofilms are like a haven to corals, sponges and molluscs, which in turn attract larger animals.

Very quickly the shipwreck becomes a kind of artificial reef, home to a plethora of life. BOEM Ancient wooden shipwrecks are set upon by microbes that feed on wood, whilst more modern steel ships attract bacteria like H. Once it hits the floor it becomes available to microbes that rush to cover every surface In , a team of scientists from the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management BOEM conducted perhaps the most in-depth study to date into microbial life on shipwrecks.

They looked at eight shipwrecks in the northern Gulf of Mexico. The shipwrecks included wooden-hulled sailing ships dating to the 19th Century, one wooden-hulled sailing ship possibly from as early as the 17th Century, and three World War Two steel-hulled vessels, one of which was sunk by a German U-boat. They found that the material the ship was built from was the crucial factor that determined the type of microbe that was attracted to the wreck.

Wooden ships were teeming with bacteria that attack and feed on the cellulose, hemicellulose, or lignin found in wood. Steel ships, on the other hand, were occupied mostly by iron-loving bacteria.

Strangely, although the bacteria were essentially feeding on the ship, they actually served to protect them from corrosion. View image of The bow of the wrecked yacht Anona Credit: The Deepwater Horizon disaster spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico "At first the ship will begin to corrode as it is in contact with seawater, but as microbes begin to colonise the wreck they begin to form a biofilm, which forms a protective layer between the ship and the seawater," says Damour.

This means that any kind of mechanical impact, such as an anchor dragging across the wreck, will break through that protective crust and open the bare metal to the seawater again, speeding up corrosion.

It is not just mechanical impact that can speed up the corrosion. The Deepwater Horizon disaster spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, and much of it entered the deep ocean.

In laboratory experiments, the team has found that exposure to oil can speed up the corrosion of shipwreck material. This suggests that oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill may be accelerating the corrosion of shipwrecks on the seafloor, but the team have not yet been able to find out if this is really happening.

These shipwrecks are important historical monuments "Iron-sulphate-reducing bacteria are attracted to the iron in steel shipwrecks, but others love the hydrocarbons that make up oil, and so these flourished after the spill. However, we found that not all microbes can handle being exposed to oil and chemical dispersants and some find it extremely toxic. Even four years later, the oil was still present in the environment, and the damaging effect it has on bacteria and biofilms meant the shipwrecks were exposed to seawater and were corroding at a much faster rate.

These shipwrecks are important historical monuments, which provide unique insight into the past. They also provide a home for deep-sea life.

But eventually, all the shipwrecks — including Titanic out in the Atlantic — will be eaten away entirely, whether through metal-munching bacteria or seawater corrosion. The iron in the 47,tonne vessel will end up in the ocean. Eventually, some of it will be incorporated in the bodies of marine animals and plants. The Titanic will have been recycled.

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