updated 12/8/2010 10:19:09 AM ET 2010-12-08T15:19:09

A rust stain may be all that will remain of the RMS Titanic in 15 to 20 years, according to new research into the submerged ocean liner wreck.

Working at a depth of over two miles, a never-before-seen bacterial species is devouring the hull of the so-called "unsinkable ship" on the Atlantic seabed where it sank on April 15, 1912, killing 1,517 people.

Named Halomonas titanicae, the bacterium was isolated from samples of so-called rusticles present on the wreck.

These dark orange structures look like icicles but are made up of rust.

"The isolate was obtained from rusticle samples collected during the Akademic Keldysh expedition in 1991, at the site of the wreck," Canadian and Spanish researchers write in the latest issue of the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology published on Dec. 8.

Removed from the hull using the articulated arm of the Mir 2 robotic submersible, the rusticles were transferred to plastic collection bags and transported aseptically to the surface to be analyzed.

Using DNA technology, the researchers discovered that the rusticles were formed by a combination of 27 different strains of bacteria.

Among the bacteria feasting on the Titanic, there was a brand new member of the salt-loving Halomonas genus.

"We don't know yet whether Halomonas titanicae arrived aboard the RMS Titanic before or after it sank," said lead researcher Henrietta Mann, at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada.

Able to adhere to steel surfaces, the new species has led to the formation of knob-like mounds of corrosion. Covered with such rust mounds, the wreck of the Titanic is at risk of disintegrating into dust, as the porous rusticles eventually dissolve into fine powder.

Discovered in 1985, about two miles below the ocean surface and some 329 miles southeast of Newfoundland, Canada, the wreck of the Titanic has been progressively deteriorating.

Originally made up of 50,000 tons of iron, the ship has dramatically split apart: the stern and the bow lie some 2,000 feet apart in opposite directions.

While potentially dangerous to underwater metal structures like shipwrecks, as well as offshore oil and gas pipelines, the newly discovered species could also offer positive applications for industry.

"The new specie of bacteria plays a significant part in the recycling of iron structures in deep ocean. It could be useful in the disposal old naval and merchant ships and oil rigs," Mann told Discovery News.

According to Bhavleen Kaur, science educator at the Ontario Science Centre, Toronto, Canada, finding a new species is important, but even more exciting is the environment found in the rusticles.

"Out of the consortium of microbes, whose actions are responsible for the formation of rusticles on the Titanic wreck, Halomonas titanicae is the first to be fully characterized and named. How many more novel species are living within the rusticles? How did they get there or did they evolve within this artificially created mini-ecosystem?...These microbes can be an addition to the tool kit when we carry further investigations into corrosive processes," Kaur told Discovery News.

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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