Metal Eaters Propel The Demise Of The Titanic

Shipwreck porthole.Oceanographer Robert Ballard’s literary showpiece The Discovery Of The Titanic today sits on a shelf in my bedroom collecting dust.  Gone are the days when it was heavily leafed through by relatives and close friends mesmerized as they were by the glossy pictures and personal accounts of disaster contained within its covers.  I had dismissed from mind images of the Titanic’s Captain Edward Smith and Marconi wireless operators Jack Phillips and Harold Bride that accompany the chilling story of the fateful night.  I had forgotten about Ballard’s detailed chronicling of the turbulent expeditions that led to the eventual finding of the Titanic more than 70 years later.  And I had put aside my fascination for the flagship submersible Argo that in 1985 had scoured the Atlantic at 13,000 feet below sea level until it finally met up with the eerie wreck of the luxury liner.   But my interest in the book has recently been revived by the molecular characterization of a fastidious strain of bacteria that is “speeding up the decay of the historic wreck” (1).

When Ballard wrote his book over 25 years ago, biologists had already advanced the idea that micro-organisms were breaking down the iron cladding of the Titanic.  His description of some of the first shuddersome glimpses of the ship’s contours give us an inkling of what was known at the time:

“As we rose in slow motion up the ghostly wall of the port bow, our running lights reflected off the still-unbroken glass of portholes in a way that made me think of cats’ eyes gleaming in the dark.  In places, the rust about them formed eyelashes, sometimes tears.  As though the Titanic were weeping over her fate.  Near the upper railing- still largely intact- reddish –brown stalactites of rust hung down as much as several feet, looking like long needle-like icicles.  This phenomenon, the result of iron-eating bacteria, was well known, but never had they been seen on such a massive scale.  I subsequently dubbed them “rusticles”-  a name which seems to have stuck” (2).

Now a joint effort from scientists in Spain and Canada has uncovered the DNA signature of one of a handful of bacterial agents that lie at the heart of the rusticle phenomenon. By removing stalactite pieces from the hull of the Titanic and performing a battery of elucidative phenotypic and chemotaxonomic tests, Christina Sanchez-Porro and others have homed in on the true identity of one salt-loving microbial wreck heister called Halomonas titanicae (3).

H.titanicae, dubbed BH1, is part of a larger family of bacteria that until now had never been observed so deep below the ocean surface.  It uses iron as an inorganic source of energy, oxidizing it and leaving rust behind as a waste product.  For many of the 27 bacterial strains now known to live in the rusticles, the deep sea conditions are not sufficiently acidic for growth (2).  They get around this by manufacturing a more favorable dwelling of “highly viscous slime” that encapsulates them away from seawater and gives them an acidic habitat in which to flourish (2).   But bacteria are not the only organisms feasting on the spoils of this particular maritime tragedy.  Wood-borers have all but decimated much of the exquisite woodwork in the ship’s interior although the high density teak wood found in many of the railings, staircases and roof trims has proven to be remarkably unyielding to these voracious assailants (2).      

Opinions differ over whether the havoc that bacteria such as BH1 are wreaking should be left to continue unabated (1)   Ontario Science Center biologist Bhavleen Kaur believes that the bacterial goings-on aboard the Titanic could be used to help us better understand and halt the breakdown of other manmade sea structures such as offshore oil rigs and gas pipelines (1,4,5).  Microbial ‘iron munching’ might even find application in recycling and disposal workflows (5).  Some heritage devotees are less than happy about such proposals preferring instead to promote efforts to halt H.titanicae in its tracks and preserve the wreck for posterity.

Bollard Titanic BookWhile perhaps desirable, going head-to-head with nature’s forces seems impracticable given the sheer speed at which the wreck is succumbing to bacterial breakdown.  Canadian civil engineer Henrietta Mann posited that twenty years from now there may be little more than a “rust stain on the bottom of the Atlantic” marking the location where the Titanic’s shadowy grave once lay (4,5).  It is a sobering thought that such a fate should befall what was once a 50,000 ton steel leviathan of a ship (5).  Extensive video footage and photographs may soon become the only means we have by which to remember the Titanic’s “very human story” (4,5).

Further Reading

  1. Rachel Kaufman (2010) New Bacteria Found On Titanic; Eats Metal, National Geographic News, December 10th, 2010, See
  2. Robert Ballard (1984) The Discovery Of The Titanic: Exploring The Greatest Of All Lost Ships, Madison Press Books, Toronto, ON, p.116, p.208
  3. Sánchez-Porro C, Kaur B, Mann H, & Ventosa A (2010). Halomonas titanicae sp. nov., a halophilic bacterium isolated from the RMS Titanic. International journal of systematic and evolutionary microbiology, 60 (Pt 12), 2768-74 PMID: 20061494
  4. Graham Smith (2011) First it was an iceberg, now it’s bacteria: Rust-eating species ‘will destroy wreck of Titanic within 20 years’, Daily Mail, 12th January, 2011, See
  5. Rosella Lorenzi (2010) Titanic Being Eaten By Destructive Bacteria, Discovery News, 7th December, 2010, See

‘The Heavens Declare The Story They Trod’: Tracking Sports Teams Using Advanced Satellite Monitoring

Matthew Upson of England heads the first goal past Manuel Neuer of Germany..FIFA World Cup 2010 Round of 16..Germany v England..27th June, 2010.

The Vuvuzela. What is it? World cup soccer fans know it well and have described it in every way possible, occasionally with words of endearment but more often with an air of disdain. The dictionary defines it as a stadium horn that is approximately 2 feet long and produces a long monotone sound.  And boy does that sound pack a punch! Picture a stadium packed to the brim with excited fans playing the vuvuzela and you will begin to understand why many a fan chooses to hit the mute button on their TVs when watching this year’s FIFA World Cup. Even sports commentators cannot stop talking about it. But to be brutally honest, the reason why most of us are tuning in to watch one of the biggest recurring sporting events in the world is not to cultivate a love-hate relationship with a stadium horn. Rather we all want to egg on (and hopefully not egg splatter) our ‘Titan warrior’ sports men who are strategizing over how best to break the resolve of their opponents.  Continue reading “‘The Heavens Declare The Story They Trod’: Tracking Sports Teams Using Advanced Satellite Monitoring”

Hobbie and Doogie: Brainier Rodents With A Therapeutic Potential

C.S. Lewis’ novel The Magician’s Nephew tells of two children named Polly and Digory living in early 20th century London who set off on an adventure to explore a tunnel that runs through the roof of their row of terraced houses (1).  They eventually end up in a strange world ruled by Aslan—a talking lion whose goodness seems altogether repulsive to the evil forces that abound therein. With scenes of jackdaws and moles later competing to see who can be the first to tell a joke, we see in Lewis an author who knows how to inject humor into an otherwise serious message (1).

While recent collaborative studies by groups in China and the United States have not given us Lewis-style talking animals, they have provided some stunning insights into animal memory and learning behaviors.  Specifically Deheng Wang and colleagues from Shanghai, Yunnam and the Medical College of Georgia (MCG) generated a transgenic rat strain, affectionately known as ‘Hobbie-J’, that over-expressed a subunit of the brain NMDA (N-methyl D-aspartate) glutamate receptor called NR2B (2-3).  Their behavior experiments repeatedly showed Hobbie-J rats outperforming control litter mates in object recognition and spatial memory tests (2). Continue reading “Hobbie and Doogie: Brainier Rodents With A Therapeutic Potential”

Running A Victory Lap For Promega’s Bioluminescence Technologies

Helping scientists design experiments and interpret data is what we do best at Promega Technical Services. This may mean spending time at the bench attempting to reproduce anomalous results or forming a team, perhaps with members of other departments, to brainstorm seemingly intractable experimental road blocks.  Still, for many of us nothing surpasses the experience of meeting these same scientists face to face whether it be on their home turf or at a booth during a tradeshow. PCArticle Continue reading “Running A Victory Lap For Promega’s Bioluminescence Technologies”

Genomics, Cellomics and…Poetryomics?

Poems On the Underground is an annual project that has been a part of London life since the mid 1980s.  It is also one with which I have a personal connection—my father used to work for The British Council which cosponsors the project (1).  Every year a selection of poems authored by literary greats such as William Blake, William Wordsworth and Wendy Cope are carefully selected for publication on London Underground trains (1).  For many a rush-hour traveler, these short poetic nuggets will inevitably engage the mind perhaps temporarily drawing it away from the monotony of a working day.

The world of bioscience has recently latched onto a similar craving for all things poetic and creative writing-related.  Sponsored by UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), The Human Genre Project is the name chosen for a new initiative that aims to tap into the writing abilities of the public at large with a specific focus on genes and genomics (2,3).  Continue reading “Genomics, Cellomics and…Poetryomics?”

Getting Our Hands Into Some Good Ol’ Home Science

static_detection-simple_electroscopeFor many, this time of year brings with it the opportunity to enjoy a bit of holiday fun with kids. In fact just recently I had the chance to spend a day doing several home science activities with my four- and seven-year old boys. All were simple to set up using commonly found household items in a way that was both instructive and rewarding. Continue reading “Getting Our Hands Into Some Good Ol’ Home Science”

STATs and ChIPs- Learning A Lesson Or Two About Transcriptional Activation

During my childhood, my family and I spent many a vacation in the Swiss Alps.  From the mountain tops I used to look out into the horizon as far as the eye could see with peak upon peak stretching out into the distance.  If I was lucky, I would have a map that allowed me to identify each peak, perhaps even distinguish the highest from the lowest and thus really get a sense that I understood the underlying topography.  However, I quickly realized how little I actually knew about the vast, undulating Swiss countryside.  What I had initially observed as a homogenous ‘mat’ of peaks stretching out into the horizon was in fact a rippling of deep valleys that would make an afternoon hike anything but a walk in the breeze. 

Looking back on these experiences I am struck by how closely they reflect the landscape of modern science— a broad mat of detailed knowledge with its own peaks of specialization.  I am reminded of the words of writer Bill Bryson who described science as “tens of thousands of people that do tiny, tiny things that all accrete into a larger body of knowledge” (1).  Continue reading “STATs and ChIPs- Learning A Lesson Or Two About Transcriptional Activation”