Cleaner Mining

The challenge of supplying future mineral demands is alarmingly complex. Earth’s high-grade primary metal reserves are depleting, and this calls for new alternative mining strategies to complement – and eventually replace – traditional pyro/hydrometallurgy techniques. Biomining is a technique which applies different microbes to mineral ores for the purpose of extracting target metals so they can be processed downstream. In many cases, this is more economically viable and environmentally friendly than other approaches, yet it is currently just used for the extraction of copper and gold from iron-sulfide ores. Recent studies demonstrate Acidithiobacillus species releasing nickel from recalcitrant laterite ores, which hints at opportunities to genetically modify these microbes to have enhanced nickel extraction properties. This prospect is highly attractive due to the extractable high nickel concentrations found in mining effluent and acid mine drainage near Sudbury, Ontario (and surely other parts of the world). My two-stage project takes on a synthetic biology approach. I will first characterize a set of nickel-binding proteins from various soil and pathogenic bacteria, then assemble new genetic systems expressing select proteins from this set that allows for uptake and storage of nickel ions inside the host cell for further downstream processing. Not only can this be economically appealing, but it serves the greater purpose of cleaning wastewater for improved environmental and human health.

Patrick Diep