Scientists in B.C. are looking to tiny creatures to help find a better way to clean up pollution from some of the province’s biggest mining operations.
The creatures are heavy-metal-eating microbes, and they’re being used to process the toxic byproducts produced over decades by the Teck Resources Limited zinc and lead mine in the city of Trail.
A wetlands system brimming with metal-hungry bacteria is one way to clean up dangerous substances without using harsh chemicals.
But the tiny life forms are not completely reliable.
“They don’t necessarily work properly,” admits Sue Baldwin, an associate professor of chemistry and biological engineering at UBC.
But after 10 years and a lot of biological tweaking, they are working properly at the Trail site, about 650 kilometres southwest of Calgary.
Some of the bacteria actually eat heavy metals while others help remove the arsenic and cadmium from the water.
Baldwin is trying to learn from the Teck example to help other mine sites try similar methods.
“It’s very much like gardening,” said Baldwin. “It’s sometimes more like an art than a science.”
The science involves figuring out which microbes are doing what. It’s a difficult task because the bacteria are microscopic and there could be thousands of different kinds working together.
“Isolating each microbe, and sequencing its genome … would take forever,” said Baldwin. “We try to capture the ‘metagenome’ of the whole community.”
Metagenomics is a new area of biology that involves examining at the DNA of many organisms at once so scientists can build an overall picture of which genes are working, and which might be causing pollution of their own.
“In solving one environmental problem, we don’t want to create another one,” said Baldwin.
Baldwin said mining companies around B.C. and in other parts of the world are keeping an eye on her research, as the industry strives for greener ways to clean up after itself.