Titanic Is Being Consumed by Invisible Lifeforms in Its Watery Grave

Explorers will venture to the watery grave of the Titanic to study the invisible lifeforms that are consuming it.

A team of scientists abroad the 2022 Titanic Survey Expedition–conducted by ocean exploration company OceanGate Expeditions and environmental genomics organization eDNAtec–will gather water samples around the 1912 shipwreck and study the DNA within to better understand the microscopic organisms that call it home.

Titanic set sail from Southampton, U.K., on April 10, 1912, headed for New York. On April 14, the ship hit an iceberg almost 400 miles from Newfoundland. It only had 20 lifeboats with the capacity to carry 1,178 people, which was around half the number of passengers on board. On April 15, the Titanic sunk, killing around 1,500 of the 2,224 passengers.

The wreck of the Titanic lies 13,000 feet below the surface of the Atlantic ocean. It was rediscovered in September, 1985, and since then researchers have sought to preserve and study what remains of the 880-foot ship.

The wreck is covered in rusticles -- iron eating organisms that are causing it to disappear OceanGate Media Oceangate

Much of what lurks in the deep ocean is still unknown to scientists, but previous studies of the Titanic showed that there is much more life and activity on the seafloor than expected.

The wreck has become its own ecosystem and acted as a reef for an abundance of organisms. Many plants and animals need a surface to cling to, and have attached themselves to the long lost ship.

The Titanic is now covered in rusticles, which are communities of bacteria slowly eating away at the ship's debris. Since the wreck was rediscovered, the mast has fallen down and the crow's nest has vanished.

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Scientists think the majority of the wreck could be completely eroded by 2030, meaning time to document its ecosystem is running out. Efforts to conserve the wreck are underway. In 2012, it became a UNESCO historical site, in attempts to better protect the ship from any more damage.

OceanGate Expeditions conduct explorations to the wreck annually in a hurry to study the ecosystem before it becomes unrecognizable. The 2022 Titanic Survey Expedition will consist of five visits to the site over eight days.

A company representative from OceanGate Expeditions told Newsweek that although previous expeditions show an abundance of organisms, the observations are limited.
"No expeditions have done a comprehensive survey of biodiversity on the wreck thus far," they said.

In a statement, Mehrdad Hajibabaei, biodiversity genomics expert and eDNAtec founder, said this is one of the "deepest and most ambitious studies" they have undertaken. He said marine biologists will conduct a longitudinal study of the water surrounding the ship and, from there, use an advanced DNA sequencing approach. This will enable the scientists to gain a "complete view" of the ecosystem living around the wreck.

The OceanGate representative told Newsweek that this is a "powerful approach" to survey biodiversity because it can be used to detect all types and sizes of organisms: "We expect to detect organisms from tiny plankton all the way up to large fish providing a complete overview of the ecosystem. Given the breadth of this approach, we expect to identify many more species than have previously been documented on the Titanic."

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According to Hajibabaei, the study will expand our understanding of "the extraordinary spectrum of species" in the deep water. "We will generate a complete view of organisms in an ecosystem using high-capacity sequencing platforms that generate billions of genomic sequences," he said.

In a statement, Steve W Ross, a marine biologist with the project, said: "This is groundbreaking deep-sea research. The deeper you go into the ocean, the less knowledgeable we are. This study will give us an entirely different view of this one-of-a-kind habitat while also adding substantially to shared deep water DNA data sets."

Ross said the primary goal of the expedition is to publish the most important findings so scientists can compare results in future studies.

"Water samples taken and analyzed using advanced genomics technologies will not only help us identify the lifeforms we can directly observe from the Titan submersible, but will also give us a full picture of the lifeforms we cannot see. This includes invisible signs of both microscopic creatures and larger animals that leave traces of DNA in the water surrounding the Titanic. This research effort will contribute to conservation of the ecosystem of the wreck site."

This article has been updated to include quotes from an OceanGate representative.

A picture shows the bow section of the wreck. The crows nest has already vanished OceanGate Media Oceangate