Genome British Columbia

Genome British Columbia

November 16, 2009 09:00 ET

Genome British Columbia: Genomics to Provide More Effective Treatment Options for Mining Wastewater

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA--(Marketwire - Nov. 16, 2009) - Companies that are faced with the challenge of cleaning up toxic wastewater from mining operations will soon have more reliable bioremediation options.

New research from Genome BC will harness the potential of microbes naturally present in mine bioremediation to help improve strategies for cleaning up contaminated mine sites.

This method of bioremediation will provide a valuable alternative to some current mine effluent treatment methods that require large-scale employment of chemicals to treat water contaminated by metal leaching and acid rock drainage.

Dr. Sue Baldwin at The University of British Columbia is leading the $1.5 million project entitled, The Development of Genomic Tools for Monitoring and Improving Passive Mitigation of Mine Drainage.

"There are micro-organisms out there that can do all sorts of things, including the detoxification of water," says Baldwin. We are relying on the microbes that are already present in the environment to do this, and using genomics to determine how to create the conditions in which they will thrive."

Essentially, the micro-organisms digest the metal toxins in wastewater, sequestering them or reducing them to less toxic forms. One class of microbes in particular termed Sulfate-Reducing Bacteria (SRB), are known to be powerhouses in the clean up of mine drainage.

But SRB do not work in isolation; they rely on members of a diverse microbial community to provide them with essential nutrients so they can thrive and carry out the detoxification.

This is where genomics come in. The researchers will study the microbial community as a whole, sequence the DNA to see how the organisms interact, and determine what sort of nutrients and conditions are necessary to ensure that they continue to do their jobs over time.

The researchers are gathering information from two test sites where they are setting up pilot treatment facilities. The sites are located at the Mt. Polley Mine, a copper and gold mine near Williams Lake, BC and at the Teck smelter near Castlegar, BC.

So what exactly would one of these natural treatment "facilities" look like?

"No different than the surrounding environment," says Baldwin. "The water would flow through a natural compost area which would serve to nourish the microbes, and this would be capped with grasses... it essentially looks like a series of grasses and water ponds."

These treatment facilities are universally applicable and can be set up in virtually any environment where there is sufficient space, and customized to include the natural microbial communities that are found there. "We have keen interest and active participation from the international mining community," says Baldwin.

Dr. Alan Winter is Genome BC's President and CEO. "We are very pleased to support this innovative research, which is helping to solve a major challenge in the mining industry here in British Columbia and around the world, and doing it in such a way as to not disturb the environment any further," he says.

About Genome BC

Founded in 2000, Genome BC works collaboratively with government, universities and industry as the catalyst for a genomics-driven life sciences cluster with significant social and economic benefits for the Province and Canada. The organization's research portfolio, over $410 million since inception, includes 74 projects and technology platforms focused on areas of strategic importance to British Columbia such as human health, forestry, fisheries, bioenergy, mining, agriculture, and the environment. Genome BC programs are funded by Genome Canada, the Provincial Government of British Columbia, Western Economic Diversification Canada and other public and private partners.

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Genomics to provide more effective treatment options for mining wastewater


This research can improve the passive treatment of water where naturally occurring biological processes are harnessed to detoxify contaminated water.

Metal mining effluents are potential sources of toxic compounds for many different receiving aquatic environments. This research group will characterize the complex microbial communities that are present during bioremediation of mining wastewater by obtaining their metagenomic(1) profiles. Current mine effluent treatment methods require large-scale chemical treatment of both metal leaching (ML) and acid rock drainage (ARD) in order for mining to be environmentally sustainable.

In some cases, bioremediation provides an alternative to chemical treatment because microbial consortia are effective in reducing metals to less toxic forms or to sequester metals as part of their detoxification mechanism. In particular, sulfate-reducing bacteria (SRB) are effective in bioremediation of mine drainage containing sulphate and metals. However, SRB rely on other members of a diverse microbial community to provide them with carbon compounds and other nutrients needed to survive. Therefore, understanding the complex interactions of the microbial community is essential to implement effective bioremediation and passive treatment systems. The research group will track existing populations of micro-organisms over time and in changing environmental conditions to monitor the effect of different variables on microbial community composition.

The social science and humanities (SSH) arm of this study seeks a more nuanced understanding of treatment decisions related to mine effluent treatment. The objective is to understand the processes through which the mining industry and its stakeholders make science-based decisions and the implications of those processes for the adoption of novel genomic technologies. Researchers will use field-based and 'mixed' research methods to collect and analyze data and fieldwork focuses predominantly at the level of local communities with field sites at the two locations selected for the main study, supplemented by a nearby site. Mixed methods offer a pragmatic and pluralistic mix of qualitative and quantitative approaches adaptable to different phases of a study. The SSH project will combine field-based ethnographic and case study techniques with survey methods, historical and content analysis, and systematic literature reviews.


Dr. Susan Baldwin is an associate professor at UBC in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and is currently studying the use of microbial communities in the bioremediation of mine drainage. She holds a doctorate from the University of Toronto in Biomedical Engineering and an MSc in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Dr. Baldwin completed her postdoctoral training at McGill University in Montreal in the modeling of hydrometallurgical reactors and at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands in hydrometallurgy with a focus on iron oxidation.

(1)Metagenomics combines molecular biology and genetics in an attempt to identify, and characterize the genetic material from environmental samples and apply that knowledge to reveal important characteristics of that particular microbial community.


Project title: The Development of Genomic Tools for Monitoring and Improving Passive Mitigation of Mine Drainage

Project Value: $1,554,985

Primary Project Funding: Genome British Columbia - $777,435

Mount Polley Mine $350,800
Teck Cominco Metals Ltd. $210,760
Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council $165,990
NatureWorks Remediation Corp. $ 50,000

Project Leader: Dr. Sue Baldwin, Dept. of Chemical and Biological Engineering, UBC


Dr. Steven Hallam, Dept. of Microbiology & Immunology, UBC

Dr. Janet Atkinson-Grosjean, W. Maurice Young Centre for Applied Ethics, UBC

Involved Research Institutions: The University of British Columbia (UBC)

Fields of Activity: Bioremediation, microbial ecology, mining

For more information about Genome BC, visit

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