Bioprospecting for biotechnological solutions to sustainable mineral resource management

A tailings dam and a mine site

Mountains of waste ore from a potassium mine, Belarus, image by Olga Maksimava/Shutterstock

The world needs a green, sustainable supply of critical metals to enable us to transition to a green economy. Many of these metals are locked up in mine wastes left at former mine sites.

This project investigates the potential to use microorganisms to access these metals and help meet the supply demands of society.

To do this we need to find bacteria and fungi that already have the ability to survive in metal-rich environments and which are able to mobilise the metals, so that we can then concentrate the metals and use them.

The place to look is the very mine waste sites where the metals are present. Microbes at these sites have evolved in metal-rich environments and exploit the energy released during reactions involving the metals for growth.

This project involves working with international leaders in mineralogy, geochemistry and microbiology. With their help you will become an interdisciplinary scientist, equally at home in the field and laboratory, and be able to move between the fields of geology and biology in order to find solutions to current global issues.

You will visit and sample former mine sites in the south of England and combine mineralogical and geochemical characterisation of mine wastes and metal-rich soils at such sites with cutting-edge genomic analysis of the indigenous microbial populations, assessing both taxonomic and metabolic diversity.

Once you have characterised the microbial populations you will carry out laboratory-based experiments to determine which of the microbes present at these sites can be used to process and concentrate the metals present in the wastes into an accessible and concentrated form suitable for down-stream technological application.

You will be based at London’s Natural History Museum with access to state-of-the-art mineralogical, geochemical and microbiological facilities and laboratories. Additional support and training will be provided by Professor Mark Hodson, a leading soil scientist with extensive experience of contaminated sites and who is based at the University of York.

Publications

Jungblut A.D., Raymond F., Dion M.B., Moineau S., Mohit V., Nguyen G.Q.H., Deraspe M., Francovic-Fontaine E., Lovejoy C., Culley A.I., Corbeil J., Vincent W.F. (2021) Genomic diversity and CRISPR-Cas systems in the cyanobacterium Nostoc in the High Arctic. Environmental Microbiology 

Santos A.L., Dybowska A., Schofield P.F., Herrington R.J., Johnson D.B. (2020) Sulphur enhanced reductive bioprocessing of cobalt-bearing .materials for base metals recovery. Hydrometallurgy195:105396

Johnson D.B., Dybowska A., Schofield P.F., Herrington R.J., Smith S.L., Santos A.L. (2020) Bioleaching of arsenic-rich cobalt mineral resources, and evidence for concurrent biomineralisation of scorodite during oxidative bio-processing of skutterudite. Hydrometallurgy 195:105395 

*Mulroy D.S.J., Coker V.S., Lloyd J.R., Schofield P.F., Mosselmans J.F.W. (2019) Potential for low cost bioprocessing of Co and Ni from Nkamouna lateritic ore. Proceedings of the 15th SGA Biennial Meeting, Glasgow 1-4, 1697-1699

*PhD student co-author

Apply for this course

Apply for this project through the NHM careers website

Application deadline: 14 January, 2022

Supervisors

Lead supervisor, Natural History Museum

Paul Schofield

Co-supervisor, University of York

Mark Hodson

Other supervisors, Natural History Museum

Anne Jungblut, Robin Armstrong

ACCE Doctoral Training Partnership

Joint PhD training partnerships between the Natural History Museum and the Universities of Sheffield, Liverpool and York, and the NERC’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH).