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OceanGate plans DNA survey during Titanic dives

Inside the sub
Pilot Stockton Rush consults with others during a dive to the Titanic wreck site in 2021. (OceanGate Photo)

What’s lurking at the Titanic shipwreck site, nearly 13,000 beneath the surface of the North Atlantic? Everett, Wash.-based OceanGate aims to help scientists find out by cataloging the genomic signatures present in the deep ocean.

Researchers will gather up water samples at different depths during a series of dives planned by OceanGate’s Titan submersible this summer, and then analyze the samples to identify the DNA captured within.

The results are expected to give scientists a deeper understanding of deep-ocean biodiversity, and may also shed new light on some of the enduring mysteries surrounding the world’s best-known shipwreck.

“This is groundbreaking deep-sea research,” Steve W. Ross, a research professor affiliated with the Center for Marine Science at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, said in a news release. Ross took part in OceanGate Expeditions’ 2021 Titanic survey, and will be chief scientist for this summer’s expedition.

Over the past 110 years, the sinking of the Titanic luxury liner — and the loss of more than 1,500 passengers and crew — have provided the inspiration for countless tragic tales, including an Oscar-winning movie. Over that same time period, the rusting wreck has provided an artificial reef for life at the bottom of the sea.

An image from the 2021 Titanic Survey Expedition shows “rusticles” hanging down from the shipwreck’s iconic bow. The rusticles are created by microbes that feed off the ship’s rusting metal. (OceanGate Photo)

“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. “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 also will 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.”

The survey will make use of eDNAtec’s EnviroSeq approach to high-capacity genomic sequencing of environmental DNA, or eDNA for short.

“We will conduct a longitudinal eDNA study to document the marine biodiversity of the Titanic’s deep-water ecosystem,” said Mehrdad Hajibabaei, the founder and chief scientific officer of eDNAtec. “This is one of the deepest and most ambitious studies we have undertaken.”

In response to GeekWire’s emailed inquiry, Ross said he expected the OceanGate Expeditions team to collect at least 10 liters of water for sampling during each dive. OceanGate intends to do three to five dives during each of this summer’s five planned missions, with each mission scheduled to last eight days.

Other scientists — including, most notably, genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter — have previously documented the diversity of seaborne DNA. But Ross said the sort of deep-ocean DNA sampling planned during this year’s Titanic expedition is a “frontier area of research.”

“The microbial community is very likely different from those at shallower depths, and we might detect this,” he said via email. “In addition to finding patterns or species we expect, new discoveries are very likely.”

For example, the eDNA survey may shed light on the biological mechanisms behind the accelerating deterioration of the Titanic wreck. “We may find DNA signals from the bacteria that make the rusticles,” Ross wrote.

Ross said the DNA research effort should contribute to conservation of the ecosystem of the wreck site.

Last year, OceanGate made room for mission specialists who paid to participate in the first Titanic expedition, and the company is making similar arrangements for this summer. This year’s mission training and support fee is $250,000.

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