Harnessing the power of microbial communities in the mine of tomorrow

CIM Montreal 2015
Steven Hallam (University of British Columbia)
Microorganisms represent the invisible majority of living things on Earth. Interconnected microbial communities catalyze matter and energy conversion processes essential to ecosystem functions and services through cooperative networks of metabolite exchange. Indeed, microbial capacity to interact with and utilize metals in the environment to support metabolic processes drives biogeochemical cycling on the planet with direct impact on diagenetic processes. In this regard, microbial alchemy innovated in the crucible of geological time can be harnessed in the present tense to improve mineral prospecting and mining operations. While many of the microbial players inhabiting mine ecosystems have been described from a diversity perspective, their metabolic interactions and activities remain to be described. This information can be harnessed to improve process controls and mining operations while reducing environmental impacts. For example, sulfate-reducing bacteria (SRB) depend on surrounding microorganisms for essential nutrients and cofactors that they cannot produce themselves. In passive treatment systems, where complex carbon-sources are used as feedstocks, interactions between hydrolyzing, fermenting and acetogenic bacteria influence nutrient supply to SRB and other community members including competing iron-reducing bacteria with resulting feedback on bioreactor performance. Therefore, for effective design and operation of passive treatment systems it becomes necessary to monitor the activity and connectivity of microbial communities over process time. This presentation will describe how genomic technologies that shine a spotlight on uncultivated microbial communities can be used to solve real world problems in the mining industry including better process controls on leaching and mine drainage to bio-hydrometallurgy and environmental monitoring.
Keywords: Genomics, Innovation, biological processes, microbiology, performance monitoring
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