How using bacteria could be the future of iron extraction

Professor of plant and microbial biology Arash Komeili and Bakar Fellows Program student Carly Grant.

The future of iron ore mining could be in microscopic bacteria, according to a study by the University of California’s Bakar Fellows Program.

Scientists discovered iron-mining bacteria back in the mid-1960s but the process of how these microbes carry out the process of transporting iron and converting it to magnetite has not been well-studied.

This is changing, with researchers spending the last 25 years on determining that 20 to 30 genes are involved with the transport of iron, converting it to magnetite and storing it within the magnetosomes’ membranes.

According to the research, each magnetosome creates up to 20 magnetite crystals to form a chain, which acts as a compass needle to orient the bacteria in geomagnetic fields.

As professor of plant and microbial biology and Bakar Fellows participant Arash Komeili explained, this discovery may lead to new ways to extract metals for commercial value and to manipulate the genes to tease apart ferrosome transport and storage.

The Bakar Fellows program funding will support further research on this, to gain better understanding of the process and how it can be applied to mineral extraction.

“Modifying the types of genes for ferrosome metal transport should allow us to concentrate new metals of interest like gold, copper or manganese,” Komeili said.

“The mined metals in the engineered ferrosomes would be present in the same cells as the magnetic particles of manetosomes.

“Because the magnetosomes are magnetic, the accumulated metal could then be extracted by magnets.”

This could make for what Komeili calls a “plug and play” method of extracting specific metals and concentrating different metals to access valuable elements or clear toxic metals from polluted water.

Laboratory postdoc Meghan Byrne uncovered this trait by injecting dissolved iron into bacteria containing magnetosomes and tracking the iron as it ended up storing in the ferrosome compartments.

This was further verified by fellow postdoc Carly Grant, who determined only three to six genes were involved in the iron transport and ferrosome storage, making them a simpler system than magnetosomes.

The Bakar Fellows Program at UC Berkeley awards research support to mature ground-breaking discoveries and innovations into commercial solutions.

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