Shipwreck Harbors a Rich Spatially Structured Microbial Community

Related Articles

Related Articles

Shipwrecks act as artificial reefs and provide a substrate and nutrients for a great diversity of microorganisms, which can contribute to either the deterioration or preservation of the ship.

Precisely how diverse such communities are, and how they are organized, is still unknown. Here, researchers from East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, identify the bacteria associated with a shipwreck from the 1960s. They find a highly diverse community on the wreck, consisting of at least 4,800 OTUs (Operational Taxonomic Units, roughly corresponding to species) from 28 bacterial phyla, including nitrogen-, carbon-, sulfur-, and iron-cycling species. Microbial community composition strongly differed between locations within the site, suggesting niche partitioning, in the same way that fungal species specialize in particular microhabitats within a forest, based on the local abiotic and biotic environment.

The 50-m-long wreck, called the Pappy Lane, represents the remains of the steel-hulled USS LCS(L)(3)-123, built in 1944 as a WWII warship and abandoned after running aground in the 1960s in the shallows of the Pamlico Sound lagoon, North Carolina, after a second career a barge. DNA sequencing of 14 samples from across the site – visibly corroded and visibly preserved shipwreck debris, drilled shipcores, nearby sediment, and surrounding seawater – revealed notable differences in composition and metabolic capacities of the local microbial communities living on and around the shipwreck, as well as the microbial communities living on different parts of the ship. The authors explain this diversity as evidence of niche partitioning, driven by small-scale variability in the abiotic environment, for example iron content, exposure to oxygen, and traces of hydrocarbons from a former fueltank.


Present across the shipwreck and abundant where corrosion was observed, were iron-oxidizing (“iron-eating”) Proteobacteria, which may contribute to biocorrosion. These included a new strain of the marine iron-oxidizing Zetaproteobacteria, with the apt name Mariprofundus ferrooxydans O1. Genomic analysis showed that the metabolic capacities of this strain include iron oxidation, carbon fixation in both oxygen-rich and -poor environments, and nitrogen fixation, indicating that it contributes to the cycling of metals and nutrients in the shipwreck environment.

This research also has wider implications for future resource management and the development of conservation strategies for shallow water shipwrecks across all coastlines.

“We have learned that iron-oxidizing bacteria that produce rust are widespread on these shipwrecks, causing corrosion and deterioration of the wreck-site. These microbes are more abundant in areas where we see corrosion occurring, which makes them likely indicators of where further deterioration may occur. In order to prevent this damage, we can design strategies for early detection, stopping their growth and limit further biocorrosion by other microbes,” says corresponding author Dr Erin Field, Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology at East Carolina University.

The results of this study point towards the need to adapt future conservation efforts to the unique situation of each shipwreck, taking into account original construction materials, environmental factors and time spent in water.

“Historically, shipwreck sites were treated as a single environment, but our research goes deeper, showing that there are different microbial communities within single wreck-sites and associated with the wreck itself. As such, we need to tailor conservation efforts to each shipwreck in order to more effectively mitigate biocorrosion and deterioration,” explains Dr Field.

This study highlights the importance of increasing the understanding of the role of biocorrosion in the deterioration of shipwrecks and the need for more research into the microbial ecosystem of shipwrecks.

“While there is well-developed literature on the impact of galvanic corrosion on shipwrecks and historic ships, the role certain microbes play in corrosion is less well-understood. It is hoped that this article helps decipher the mechanisms of biocorrosion that could one day also lead to the development of protective measures and conservation strategies,” concludes Dr Nathan Richards, Professor and Director of Maritime Studies in the Department of History at East Carolina University and co-author of the study.


Header Image Credit : John McCord, Coastal Studies Institute

Download the HeritageDaily mobile application on iOS and Android

More on this topic


Photos of Stolen Mosaic Reveals Oldest Representation of Roman Hydraulic Wheel

Researchers from the University of Warsaw have determined that a mosaic stolen from Apamea in present-day Syria is the oldest representation of a Roman hydraulic water wheel.

Study Reveals True Origin of Oldest Evidence of Animals

Two teams of scientists have resolved a longstanding controversy surrounding the origins of complex life on Earth.

The Microbiome of Da Vinci’s Drawings

The work of Leonardo Da Vinci is an invaluable heritage of the 15th century. From engineering to anatomy, the master paved the way for many scientific disciplines.

The Private Estates of the Royal Family

The private estates of the Royal Family are the privately owned assets, not to be confused with the Crown Estates which belong to the British monarch as a corporation sole or "the sovereign's public estate".

Field Geology at Mars’ Equator Points to Ancient Megaflood

Floods of unimaginable magnitude once washed through Gale Crater on Mars' equator around 4 billion years ago - a finding that hints at the possibility that life may have existed there, according to data collected by NASA's Curiosity rover and analyzed in joint project by scientists from Jackson State University, Cornell University, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of Hawaii.

Middle Stone Age Populations Repeatedly Occupied West African Coast

Although coastlines have widely been proposed as potential corridors of past migration, the occupation of Africa's tropical coasts during the Stone Age is poorly known, particularly in contrast to the temperate coasts of northern and southern Africa.

Naqa – The Meroitic City

Naqa, also called Naga'a, and presently referred to as the El-Moswarat Andel-Naqa'a Archaeological Area was one of the ancient cities of the Nubian Kingdom of Kush, located on the east-bank of the River Nile in Western Butan (historically called the Island of Meroë) in Sudan.

Prehistoric Shark Hid its Largest Teeth

Some, if not all, early sharks that lived 300 to 400 million years ago not only dropped their lower jaws downward but rotated them outwards when opening their mouths.

Popular stories

Legio IX Hispana – The Lost Roman Legion

One of the most debated mysteries from the Roman period involves the disappearance of the Legio IX Hispana, a legion of the Imperial Roman Army that supposedly vanished sometime after AD 120.

The Secret Hellfire Club and the Hellfire Caves

The Hellfire Club was an exclusive membership-based organisation for high-society rakes, that was first founded in London in 1718, by Philip, Duke of Wharton, and several of society's elites.

Port Royal – The Sodom of the New World

Port Royal, originally named Cagway was an English harbour town and base of operations for buccaneers and privateers (pirates) until the great earthquake of 1692.

Matthew Hopkins – The Real Witch-Hunter

Matthew Hopkins was an infamous witch-hunter during the 17th century, who published “The Discovery of Witches” in 1647, and whose witch-hunting methods were applied during the notorious Salem Witch Trials in colonial Massachusetts.