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Can microbes mine for metals?

Arash Komeili and Bakar Innovation Fellow Carly Grant study the magnetic properties of unusual aquatic bacteria that store dissolved iron and use it to navigate along the earth’s magnetic field. Credit: Mark Joseph Hanson They’re microscopic miners. Some species of aquatic bacteria draw in dissolved iron from their watery environment and store it in specialized compartments called magnetosomes. They use its magnetic properties to navigate, sort of like ancient mariners using a lodestone to keep their bearings.

The bacteria thrive near the bottom of bodies of water, where oxygen levels tend to be lowest. They migrate down to the low-oxygen zones using their stash of iron like train wheels, traveling along the tracks of the earth’s magnetic field .

Arash Komeili, Professor of Plant and Microbial Biology and one of this year’s Bakar Fellows, aims to understand what controls and maintains the microbes’ novel traits. But a recent discovery may also lead to new ways to extract metals for commercial value or environmental cleanup. He described his research and the discovery that has led him in a new direction.

Q. How long have scientists known about these iron-mining bacteria?

A. They were discovered in the mid 1960s, and then essentially rediscovered […]

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