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Chemical Communication

Shipwrecks host diverse microbial communities

Iron-oxidizing bacteria may be the key to preserving these archaeological sites

by Ariana Remmel
August 29, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 33


A shallow shipwreck where researchers sample microbes.
Credit: John McCord, Coastal Studies Institute
Researchers found iron-oxidizing bacteria across various sites on a shallow shipwreck.

Though shipwrecks may seem like inanimate human artifacts, they actually host dynamic aquatic ecosystems rooted in microbial communities. Researchers have now described the complexity of microbial communities across multiple sites on the same wreck for the first time (Front. Microbiol. 2020, DOI: 10.3389/fmicb.2020.01897). A research team led by Erin Field, a microbial ecologist at East Carolina University, took samples of visibly corroded and pristine material from a shallow wreck off the North Carolina coast. The team found that the microbial communities were noticeably different between sample locations, in much the same way that microbes in our bodies have a preferred niche. “The same thing is happening on these shipwrecks: the microbes are finding the best place for themselves,” Field says. Further, the team is the first to identify iron-oxidizing bacteria attached directly to a shipwreck, including a new strain of Mariprofundus ferrooxydans. This bacteria likely contributes to biocorrosion of the iron-rich hull, but genome analysis shows that it also fixes nitrogen and carbon. That may help the bacteria recruit other organisms to form healthy, sustainable ecosystems such as artificial reefs. This insight could inform preservation strategies for these submerged archaeological sites.


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