"Everyone has their own opinion" as to how long Titanic will remain more or less intact, said research specialist Bill Lange of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. "Some people think the bow will collapse in a year or two," Lange said. "But others say it's going to be there for hundreds of years."
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.
Hard at work [Photograph by Mallinson Sadler Productions/ Crispin Sadler]
The one they chose turned out to be a new species, which the pair dubbed Halomonas titanicae. The bacteria are part of a family that had never been seen before in waters as deep as those in which the Titanic sits, about 3.8 kilometres below the surface, Kaur said.
The Titanic sank 104 years ago, and has 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.