Microbiology and the Titanic

Rusticles on the bow of the Titanic

Colleen Justison (5 PM Micro) was very excited about the centennial observations of the sinking of the Titanic. Here’s Colleen’s summary of what she found from an article in the Regina, Saskatchewan Leader-Post.

Lori Johnson, a microbiologist, went down 4 kilometers into the darkness of the Atlantic Ocean to the “metal graveyard” of the Titanic. Johnson made this two and a half hour trip because she said the wreckage is serene with a biological allure. This was not Johnson’s first dive saying how these dives can become personal. She has been in close proximity to the handrail which makes her wonder if the people who held on there had survived. The Titanic no longer looked like a ship, but twisted up metals. Even though the Titanic had spent a century deteriorating, there are still portions of the ship that still resemble the luxury vessel. Lori Johnson works for Droycon Bioconcepts which studies the degradation of the Titanic as well as other shipwrecks.

Her job for this project was to observe the rusticles, the bacteria that have been feasting on the Titanic. A rusticle is a formation of rust resembling an icicle in appearance that occurs underwater when iron oxidizes. Most of the rusticle is made up of iron, while the rest includes mutualistic or symbiotic microbes. These growths hang from the ship and have multiple colors including blue and orange. She had done other deep sea dives to shipwrecks which were not as emotional as the Titanic, which she thought was dream-like. Scientists for a long time thought that the depths in the ocean where these wrecks too place were sterile and had nothing going on. With this research they are seeing that this is not true and they are observing the biological processes going on. The research can help future building projects in the ocean, seeing what kind of materials can be used and won’t corrode or deteriorate. There are few other organisms that can be seen competing with the rusticles, however when there is light, barnacles can be seen. They have seen that the rusticles have their own life-cycle and they will grow and break off. The researchers are non-invasive because they feel that it is an area that should be respected.


About ycpmicro

My name is David Singleton, and I am an Associate Professor of Microbiology at York College of Pennsylvania. My main course is BIO230, a course taken by allied-health students at YCP. Views on this site are my own.

Posted on April 26, 2012, in A bit 'o history, Guest Post, Strange but True and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. This is really interesting because there are some who feel that the Titanic should be left alone, for this sentimental purpose. But there is much to be discovered with the unfortunate events of April 14, 1912. There certainly is a lot of science going on down there that can help modern biologists understand topics within Oceanogrophy among others and the research can also help modern day ship builders with their construction of different vessles. There was something I was reading a while ago, maybe last year near the anniversary of the sinking, that said ther was “another Titanic” in production from the White Star Line or one of its affiliates. It’ll be interesting to see if that’s actually true, if they call it unsinkable, and what types of changes they’ve made to the manufacturing process of the ship in terms of different metals used or different construction processes used that differ from the original ship.

    This topic of study does have the element of emotion attached to it because of how many people suffered and lost their lives that night. But as with any disaster, there lies the potential for some type of “good” to come out of it– with this situation I think it comes in terms of advancement for future vessles being put to sea. I’m not sure if I’d ever call anything unsinkable again though– even a “second Titanic”. I’m not sure I’d sail on a ‘second Titanic’ if it was ever produced. It’d be interesting to see how the general public feels about that as well.

    Awesome article Colleen, truly, I really think the Titanic could be a source of information for several areas of scientific study and that anything having to do with the Titanic itself is nothing short of fascinating.

    • I also had an article before the current semester on the microbiology of the Titanic site, which now that Colleen’s article has popped up I can provide a link to. It is entirely possible that within another 50 years or so, all that will be left at the Titanic site will be wood, leather, and glass left over from fixtures on the ship, and that all of the metal may be gone due to the action of the bacteria.

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