Shipwrecks increase microbial diversity, new study shows

Shipwrecks increase microbial diversity, new study shows

Shipwrecks increase microbial diversity, new study shows

The millions of shipwrecks that lie in the world’s oceans are increasing the microbial wealth of surrounding areas, according to new research.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), there are an estimated 3 million shipwrecks around the world.

Now, scientists at the University of Southern Mississippi have taken a closer look at their impact on marine life.

shipwreck
The millions of shipwrecks that lie in the world’s oceans are increasing the microbial wealth of surrounding areas, according to new research. In this photo, the wreckage of the USS Kittiwake is visible in Grand Cayman.
iStock/Getty Images Plus

Leila Hamdan, an associate professor at USM and co-author of the study, said each of the millions of shipwrecks provides a potential new habitat for microbes.

The scientist explained that microbes form the basis of ecosystems. She underlined that her team’s latest study was the first evidence of the influence of human structures on their distribution in the deep sea.

“It is important to know and understand microbial communities because they provide early and clear evidence of how human activities are changing life in the ocean,” Hamdan said.

Wood has long been the main raw material used to fabricate the ships that have sunk in the sea and is often the core of deep sea life. However, little is known about the microbial diversity of habitats produced on such stranded shipwrecks at the bottom of the ocean.

Hamdan added: “Ocean scientists know that natural hard habitats, some of which have been around for hundreds to thousands of years, determine the biodiversity of life on the seafloor.”

The expert emphasized that her team’s new research would show for the first time that human-built habitats such as shipwrecks also affect so-called biofilms.

Biofilms are living coatings produced by microbes on hard surfaces.

Hamdan explains, “These biofilms ultimately allow hard habitats to turn into islands of biodiversity.”

Shipwrecks of San Jose
Scientists say the millions of shipwrecks around the world represent a potential new habitat for microbes. Pictured: Colombian authorities recently discovered two new shipwrecks near the famous sunken San José, off the coast of Colombia.
Armada de Colombia/Zenger

The scientists at the University of Southern Mississippi chose two wooden sailing ships that sank in the Gulf of Mexico in the late 1800s for their study of the microbial life of such sites.

They placed pieces of pine and oak at various distances between 0 and 250 feet from the shipwreck. After four months, they retrieved these samples and measured all the bacteria, fungi and single-celled organisms known as archaea using gene sequencing.

The results showed that the wood species had the greatest influence on bacterial diversity. It was found that oak was more favorable than pine. However, this was less influential for archaea and fungi.

A notable result of the research is that the presence of these shipwrecks has increased the microbial richness in their respective environments. Their presence has also changed the composition of biofilm.

Hamdan said further research could provide a better understanding of the effect the thousands of oil and gas platforms had on marine life.

The scientist said: “While we are aware that human impact on the seafloor is increasing due to its multiple economic uses, the scientific discovery is not keeping pace with how this shapes the biology and chemistry of natural undersea landscapes.

“We hope this work will spark a dialogue leading to research into how built habitats are already changing the deep sea.”

Siegel Grove Shipwreck in Key Largo Florida
A notable result of the research is that the presence of these shipwrecks has increased the microbial richness in their respective environments. In this handout photo provided by the Florida Keys News Bureau, on July 12, 2005, divers swim in the Siegel Grove shipwreck in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in Key Largo, Florida.
Fraser Nivens/Florida Keys News Bureau via Getty Images

According to the United Nations UNESCO, an estimated 3 million shipwrecks are scattered in trenches and deep fissures of the various oceans of the world. Most are made of wood.

Less than 1 percent of these wrecks have been examined.

Founded in 1945, UNESCO aims to promote world peace and security through international cooperation in education, arts, sciences and culture.

The recent research was conducted by experts at the University of Southern Mississippi, a public research university in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, founded in 1910.

This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News.