Examining the microbiology of a molybdenum mine

January 12, 2015

Have you ever wondered what types of organisms live in a deep underground mine?

Geologist John Spear has, and his studies of microbiology at the Henderson molybdenum mine in Empire, CO are detailed in this article in Wired.

Spear is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Colorado School of Mines in nearby Golden. He has spent a lot of time underground in the name of fundamental research, working to understand the distribution and roles of microorganisms that inhabit Earth’s interior, the intraterrestrials.

Reflecting on years of mine-based microbiological work at the International Society of Subsurface Microbiology conference, Spear showed that the human presence in the mine has pervasively altered the Henderson’s geochemical and geobiological reality. The lake at the bottom of the mine – where fluid from throughout the operation collects – contained abundant nitrate and nitrite chemicals, which Spear attributes to episodes of TNT blasting.

In his work, Spear discovered that the anthropogenic impact on mine microbiology was also apparent when the team of scientists examined the array of species inhabiting the mine’s rock walls. At one collection site, 10 percent of the recovered organisms – a relatively large number for a site of moderate diversity – belonged to the Ascomycota fungal phylum, which is a common stowaway on human skin. The fungal prevalence in such a remote location was surprising, as microbiologists tend to focus on Bacteria and Archaea rather than the more complicated eukaryotic organisms. “When we look for life in the subsurface,” Spear cautioned, “we can’t forget about the Eukaryotes. They’re around, but we just don’t hear much about them.”

That said, a whopping 56 percent of the mine’s microbial life was made up of a previously undiscovered species Spear’s team labeled “Henderson Group 1.” Through a concerted program of sequencing and geochemical studies, the team is working to understand what this microbe could be doing in the mine, and how it has been so successful.

Check out the full article from Wired here.

Related article search: