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Bug Science

Iron-Eating Bug Is Gobbling Up the Titanic 221

gambit3 writes "A newly discovered microbe dubbed Halomonas titanicae is chewing its way through the wreck of the Titanic and leaving little behind except a fine dust, researchers report in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology. 'In 1995, I was predicting that Titanic had another 30 years,' said Henrietta Mann, a civil engineering adjunct professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. 'It's deteriorating much faster than that now.'"
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Iron-Eating Bug Is Gobbling Up the Titanic

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  • by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <eldavojohn AT gmail DOT com> on Friday December 10, 2010 @09:52AM (#34513484) Journal
    I say we surface and nuke the entire site from sea level. It's the only way to be sure those bugs don't attack our buildings and transportation. If they make it out of there, it'll be 9/11 times a hundred.
  • No more sailing... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by khr ( 708262 ) <> on Friday December 10, 2010 @09:59AM (#34513536) Homepage

    Well, it's not like it was going to sail again... So, it's the natural order of things, no great loss...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 10, 2010 @09:59AM (#34513540)

    Ever since I saw the movie as a teenager, I have looked forward to the day that I die and become a ghost, so that I may travel down to the wreckage and meditate amid the sadness of loss and the elegance of a finer age. Reading this I am completely lost. I have always believed that no ability to move through time comes with the afterlife, as otherwise ghosts from the future would have already influenced the present (however rare ghost-to-man interactions may be).

    Tell me why can this microbe exist to destroy?

    • I have mod points and I'm not sure whether to go +1 Insightful, -1 Troll, +1 Effort, -1 Psychobabble, or -1 Emo.

      Instead I just won't post anonymously and ponder why Slashdots "no posting and modding the same thread" rule exists only to destroy the contributions I could have made to this discussion.

      • by camperdave ( 969942 ) on Friday December 10, 2010 @11:36AM (#34514338) Journal


        Instead I just won't post anonymously and ponder why Slashdots "no posting and modding the same thread" rule exists only to destroy the contributions I could have made to this discussion.

        That's the primary reason I gave up moderating. I only read the stories that are of interest to me, modding along the way. Invariably I'd run across a post that I'd want to comment upon, and voila, a dilemma: Hold back my comment and leave the mod points in play, or comment on a posting and wipe out all of the mod points.

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          Just moderate and post at will.

          When smart people like us moderate, the sheeple moderators just copy what we're doing.

          So, as long as a few minutes pass between our moderation and our discussion, our moderation *does* in fact have an effect -- it's just not a direct effect.

        • by geekoid ( 135745 )

          The depends, is your post really going to add more to the conversation then the post you modded up?

          And of course, you can get another /. account to use for when you regualr account has modding privileges. Assuming you think your post on /. will actually be worth the effort.

      • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

        Use your mod points in a different discussion.

    • i haven't looked forward to that day

      mainly because i don't want to listen to celine dion in the afterlife

  • Other sunken ships (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Senes ( 928228 ) on Friday December 10, 2010 @09:59AM (#34513542)
    What about surveying sites like the battle of Midway for bugs like this? It could probably yield some very interesting information.
    • by sqldr ( 838964 )
      what, that bugs eat japanese ships too?
    • by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <eldavojohn AT gmail DOT com> on Friday December 10, 2010 @10:28AM (#34513764) Journal
      From Microbewiki on Halomonas []:

      Because Halomonas species are typically halophiles, they are usually found in water sources with high salinity levels, such as the Dead Sea and even within the frigid waters of Antarctica.

      In the paper [] you can see where this bug sits in the phylogenetic tree.

      I'm guessing the Midway Atoll has warmer water but you might find different microbes. I guess I'm more curious if the researchers think this bug already existed or if it was a neighboring microbe in the phylogenetic tree that colonized titanic and prospered, mutating slowly to what it is today -- accustomed to the iron of the wreck? If you drop anything with high surface area into the ocean and check it out fifty years later, it might be the norm to find some microbe busily breaking it down with a slight twist ...

      • by raddan ( 519638 ) * on Friday December 10, 2010 @10:59AM (#34514040)
        Your "high salinity" in Antarctica quote made me wonder why Antarctic waters would have higher salinity than, say, tropical waters near large landmasses, where there would presumably be lots of runoff. I found this salinity map [] of the oceans, which is quite surprising to me. The Atlantic is quite saline. Any oceanographers out there who can explain why salinity is distributed this way? I would expect the most saline areas to be near the tropics, and the least saline to be near the poles where you find melting ice and lower dissolving capacity of water (can you tell I'm not a chemist?). Also, not surprisingly, it seems that salinity is not evenly distributed from the top of the ocean to the bottom. Given that the Titanic in on the bottom of arctic waters, one would think that you wouldn't find Halomonas there.
        • I don't know what I'm talking about, BUT I believe this is less about mineral sources and more about the convection of ocean currents and the weight of salinated water.
          • I don't know what I'm talking about

            I wish every post on Slashdot were prefaced this way. It makes me want a +1 Honest option.

        • by Sum0 ( 1245284 )
          Higher temperature near equator = more evaporation = higher salinity. Melting water during summers near poles = freshwater input = lower salinity. Atlantic is more saline for various reasons, but input from the Mediterranean (small warm salty basin) is a big one. Depth distributions are related to global-scale thermohaline circulation as well as temperature related density stratifications
        • Those highly-saline areas are called gyres. The one in the Atlantic that you see coincides with the Sargasso sea. It's a spot where a few currents meet and form a slow cyclone. The water there is therefore sort of cut off by a wall of currents. There isn't much circulation within the Sargasso and interesting things happen there...

          Such as giant floating mats of plastic debris and massive mats of floating seaweed.

          Sargasso Sea []

        • by crunchygranola ( 1954152 ) on Friday December 10, 2010 @02:04PM (#34515762)

          ... The Atlantic is quite saline. Any oceanographers out there who can explain why salinity is distributed this way? I would expect the most saline areas to be near the tropics, and the least saline to be near the poles where you find melting ice and lower dissolving capacity of water (can you tell I'm not a chemist?). ...

          You have the arctic ice thing exactly backwards - the predominant process producing ice in the arctic is not glacier calving, but the formation of sea-ice through freezing. This process locks up freshwater and thus drives up the salinity. The other thing is that after the descending air circulation near the poles dumps its moisture as snow, it is really dry, and is it moves south along the surface it is both warming and picking up moisture further driving up the salinity, and the enclosed basin of the North Atlantic tends to traps the saline water thus formed.

          The saline water does escape the North Atlantic of course, by sinking to the bottom (forming the North Atlantic Deep Water, NADW) and flowing south. This drives the very important global thermohaline circulation system.

      • If you drop anything with high surface area into the ocean and check it out fifty years later, it might be the norm to find some microbe busily breaking it down with a slight twist ...

        That's why I don't worry about the acres of plastic floating in the Pacific [].

        • by Jawnn ( 445279 )
          Famous last words, eh? It would probably surprise you, then, to learn that the North Pacific Gyre is far, far larger than any area commonly referred to as "acres". There seems to be some debate about it's actual area, but the conservative end would more more appropriately described as "hundreds of thousands of square miles". The bulk of that flotsam is plastic, and most of that of a non-biodegradable nature. While it does degrade, it does so in a manner that actually enhances it's ability to carry toxins i
          • It would probably surprise you to learn that the North Pacific Gyre is not a tightly packed mass of plastic. It is simply an area where plastic is more prevalent due to oceanic currents. The fact that estimates of its size range from 270 thousand square miles and 5.8 million square miles should tell you that.

            It's certainly not a good thing, and it's something that needs to be dealt with, but it's also not universally negative as alarmists like to imply. A number of species of fish flourish in the flotsam

  • by snookerhog ( 1835110 ) on Friday December 10, 2010 @10:01AM (#34513554)
    when they run out of titanic? These things did not evolve to just eat the titanic. What is their usual diet other than shipwrecks?
    • by kae_verens ( 523642 ) on Friday December 10, 2010 @10:32AM (#34513790) Homepage

      it's possible that they /did/ evolve just to eat the titanic. Maybe there were some microbes that ate some other iron-filled delicacy, and happened across this gluttonous feast. over the next thousands/millions of generations, the microbes then evolved to specifically eat the titanic - I mean, why bother struggling to find food elsewhere when you're right at the feast table?

      and what happens when the titanic is gone? they die. maybe a few will survive, but any that have specialised to eat the hull will most likely not be able to eat anything else.

    • Iron?
    • by BobMcD ( 601576 )

      when they run out of titanic? These things did not evolve to just eat the titanic. What is their usual diet other than shipwrecks?

      We humans are odd creatures. We assume that once we've taken a thing and crafted it into another shape of thing that it no longer existed in nature. While this is rarely true with completely synthetic things, big metal ships do not fall into this category. Yes, the Titanic was in a shape that was more useful to us, however it was made entirely of material from this planet. And I'd think if the material exists on this planet, a creature that eats same is quite likely to exist as well.

      So, to answer the qu

      • This was exactly my point. These critters did not magically appear on the titanic. They just happened to show up where we are already looking.

        More importantly, I think this underscores once again the fact that there are multitudes of life forms under the sea that remain undiscovered yet we keep blasting all the big bucks into cold dark space.

      • by ebuck ( 585470 )

        The only problem with letting our plants take care of CO2 (as they would naturally do) is that we're cutting them down faster than they grow. The biggest CO2 eaters are the very large established trees. Trees do not gain most of their materials from the ground, over 90% of a tree is comprised of carbon captured from CO2. However, every year our forests diminish because wood is such an easy crop for the picking.

        Marshlands also consume a lot of CO2, except that they are so easy to fill in and convert to re

        • by BobMcD ( 601576 )

          Yes, surely we should live in such a way that encourages more plants. The roof-top laws are probably an excellent example of this. Also, imagine some kind of living parking lot surface...

          Definite 'yes' goes there. However, there are other parts of the argument that don't stack up as easily today, like 'cut your carbon emissions'. The argument can be made that more carbon is actually helpful, provided we likewise support the plants to consume it.

          However, back to my original concept, I suspect that the pl

        • Established trees or growing trees? I'm not a biologist, but common sense tells me that if a tree mostly consists out of carbon captured from CO2 then a growing tree should capture more of it than an established one.

    • Iron is a limiting nutrient. If you add iron to seawater, all other things being equal (e.g. phosphate), you will probably enable more "stuff" to live in that region, cf. "Importance of iron for plankton blooms and carbon dioxide drawdown in the Southern Ocean HJW De Baar, JTM de Jong, DCE Bakker - 1995 -"
    • God himself could not starve these microbes.

    • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) *

      Please, someone tell me this won't threaten the band Iron Maiden. I really need those guys.

    • They might have evolved separately from the shipwrecks. Ocean water is not merely H2O + salt. Depending on the location the content of the ocean changes. Near the deep ocean trenches where the ocean vents, the water is higher in sulfur and sulfur dependent ecosystems thrive there.
  • Where's Richard Dean Anderson when we need him?
  • Propellers (Score:5, Informative)

    by dunezone ( 899268 ) on Friday December 10, 2010 @10:17AM (#34513672) Journal
    When it all turns to iron dust the propellers will still be there as their 100% manganese bronze and will must likely be buried before they fall.
  • by sticks_us ( 150624 ) on Friday December 10, 2010 @10:20AM (#34513700) Homepage

    All you fighters better turn in your plate mail, shields, and swords, and switch classes.

    Might I suggest thief or magic-user?

  • by Apuleius ( 6901 ) on Friday December 10, 2010 @10:32AM (#34513792) Journal

    The hull of the Titanic is made of pre-1945 steel. The bessemer process for making steel makes it absorb radioactive isotopes from the air, and so steel that was put throught the process before the first open air atom bomb tests is valuable for uses such as Geiger counters.

    • Maybe not: (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Hartree ( 191324 ) on Friday December 10, 2010 @10:41AM (#34513876)

      There's still a good bit of such iron around from the German fleet that was scuttled at Scapa Flow after WW1.

      Ssh! Don't tell the microbes, or they'll hitch a ride on a passing container ship and gobble that up too.

      • by Motard ( 1553251 )

        And at Iron Bottom Sound [].

        • by Nimey ( 114278 )

          Ironbottom Sound would be problematic because those ships were sunk in battle, hence may be considered war graves and thus untouchable.

          The German fleet at Scapa Flow were scuttled by their crews after the First World War ended, and Scapa is shallower besides.

  • by Qubit ( 100461 ) on Friday December 10, 2010 @10:40AM (#34513864) Homepage Journal

    While I'm totally supportive of reasonable scientific expeditions down to see the wreckage, I am rather amused that the ship will eventually just dissolve away. At some point it all just turns to dust and gets recycled by the planet into new things. Even the physical object that we want to be most immutable -- the 1kg reference mass in France -- is beyond our ability to keep pristine. But there's no shame in that, for we are but mere mortals, muddling our way through the mysteries of the universe on our little, watery planet.

    In the end, it seems like a fitting and dignified end to the ship and to all of the souls who went down on her.

  • I've written many articles and essays on the Titanic (and one book) - have a look here [] if you're interested. Even if you're not, take a look. As for the 2010 expedition (more of a media circus than a proper scientific expedition IMHO), click on my bouquets and brickbats for my thoughts on the matter. The links in my sig, and the musings are near the top of the page.
  • Quick! Send in Dirk Pitt before it's too late!! []
    • The question is, what super villain will want the secret mutated iron eating bacteria to use in some fiendish plot to take over the world? My money is on the Iranians.
  • Ladies and gentlemen, uh, we've just lost the picture from our underwater robotic camera, but what we've seen speaks for itself. The Titanic has apparently been taken over- 'conquered' if you will- by a master race of iron eating bacteria. It's difficult to tell from this vantage point whether they will merely digest the sunken ship or enslave us all. One thing is for certain: there is no stopping them; Halomonas titanicae will soon be here. And I, for one, welcome our new rusty bacterial overlords. I'd li
  • The Wikipedia page on Microbial Corrosion shows the Titanic... so either this is nothing new at all (just sensation), or wikipedia was updated really fast.

    Anyway, microbial corrosion is nothing new, and certainly already present everywhere. []

    • by u38cg ( 607297 )
      We knew it was getting eaten - it's quite common in the right conditions. The interesting things are (a) the evolution of specialised nomming bacteria and (b) the rate of nomming.
  • Theres a fringe branch of biology that studies extremophiles - microbes that can live nearly anywhere and metabolize nearly anything. Biochemical fossils suggests these may be the earliest form of life, before oxygen and carbon dioxide metabolism had evolved.
  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Friday December 10, 2010 @12:07PM (#34514620) Journal
    Organisms whose relatively high efficiency oxygen transport system critically depends on iron-bearing biological molecules gather to express surprise at an organism that could metabolize iron!
  • Dropping engineered virii on the Titanic of all things. When will they give it up and convert to Kdaptism?

  • For once.. (Score:4, Funny)

    by Nukenbar ( 215420 ) on Friday December 10, 2010 @01:05PM (#34515232)

    I guess Iron man is not the answer to the problem.

  • I'm beginning to suspect we'd be better off had this ship never hit an iceberg!
  • Might be useful (Score:4, Interesting)

    by deadhammer ( 576762 ) on Friday December 10, 2010 @02:26PM (#34516030)
    This is a potentially useful bit of microbiology. Eventually we're going to have to clean up landfill sites and the like, so what would be more useful than a bug that strips all the iron out of a pile of stuff and deposits it in sediment? Scoop garbage into tanks, let the bugs do their work, collect the sludge at the bottom for processing. If we could engineer these bacteria to eat other stuff like copper or various types of plastic, we could potentially reclaim a lot of what we call "garbage" on the cheap. As for the Titanic? Well it's been almost a century now, I think it's time to let the old girl go.

"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts." -- Bertrand Russell