Test tubes on a bench

Big data offers tiny solutions

Microbes could help us mine more sustainably

Last Updated: 29 July 2022

Clean-energy technologies like wind, solar and hydro will power a carbon-neutral future. And to build them, we’re going to need critical minerals and metals. A lot of them.

We know demand for these materials can’t come at the expense of people and the environment – we need to leave the lightest footprint we can. And although new technologies have improved our processes over time, our industry still uses a lot of energy and can produce hazardous waste.

But what if some of the oldest and tiniest living organisms on Earth could offer solutions to these big challenges?

Sometimes called the ‘life support system of the biosphere’, microbes maintain the health of all life – plants, animals and humans. They break down organic matter, capture carbon dioxide in waste, and create the nutrients that entire ecosystems need to grow. If we can learn more about these microscopic creatures, their individual traits, and how they work with each other, we may be able to combine their strengths to help us mine more sustainably.

“I like to say that there is always a microbe out there somewhere that can solve any issue you have – the problem is finding the right ones when you need them! This is where M-MAP will be a game-changer, giving us and our partners a unique breadth and depth of data related to microbes that are already doing amazing things at our mine sites. With this data we can identify the right microbe for a solution, isolate where it is at our sites and understand which pathways the microbe or microbial community is using to deliver the functionality we need.”

– Nick Gurieff, Principal Adviser for Closure Research and Development, Rio Tinto

That’s where the Mining Microbiome Analytics Platform (M-MAP) project comes in.

Launched in February 2022, M-MAP is a partnership between government, a leading Canadian research university, not-for-profit research partners, and global mining, bioinformatics and synthetic biology companies. The project is developing the world’s largest database of mine site microbial data that will be used to identify microbes that could help us mine more sustainably in some incredible ways.

We already know, for example, that microbes exist that can consume and break down a metal called selenium – which is sometimes found in mining waste – so that the metal itself can be removed from the environment and recycled safely. But it's possible we could also find a combination of microbes that would speed up reforestation after a mine closes. Or that could treat contaminated water to be drinkable again, without needing to use any chemicals. Or that could protect natural environments from becoming polluted in the first place.

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Although biotech has been used before in mining, M-MAP will give us uniquely detailed information about microbiomes – the genetic information, or genomes, of microbes – by identifying, sequencing and cataloguing all their key traits in an enormous database that also links to their original site’s geospatial, climate and chemical data.

Although microbes are tiny, cataloguing and sequencing their DNA to find the right combinations is a huge job, with trillions of possibilities. By building a huge bank of data, M-MAP will offer a way for researchers and mining teams to find unique traits of existing microbiomes – and possibly even develop new combinations – to target and solve specific issues in ways we haven’t even thought of yet.

"As an early mining user of the platform, we see the transformative potential for this microbiome-based technology to promote environmental stewardship and help us achieve net zero emissions by 2050. By providing samples from our mines for genome sequencing, we are contributing to the potential development of breakthrough biological solutions to decarbonise the extraction and processing of metals and minerals, and to support the remediation of mine sites."

– Mark Davies, Chief Technical Officer, Rio Tinto

We’ll be providing over 3,000 rock, water and tailings samples from our Kennecott Copper, Boron and Vaudreuil sites. Along with samples collected by our partners at Teck from their sites, these will help the M-MAP team develop their extensive research databases.

A unique resource of this scale will be incredibly valuable for the mining industry, our research partners, future biotechnologists, and many other industries too, as we work to decarbonise our operations.

We need to act quickly and responsibly to meet our commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. And while we still have hard work ahead of us, we’re optimistic that M-MAP could help us identify and use microbes that will help us mine more sustainably, at scale, as the global industry norm.

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