As an environmental microbiologist, I find the microbial communities inhabiting extreme or disturbed habitats fascinating. Such consortia often exhibit unique adaption mechanisms (at both the individual species and community level), and harbor biochemical characteristics that we can apply to address various environmental challenges.
My interdisciplinary research program, which applies tools in molecular biology, microbiology, and biogeochemistry, has evolved to constitute the bioleaching of base metals, bioremediation of metal contaminated sites, and science outreach. Ongoing projects include: (1) microcosm studies of the abiotic and biotic (microbial and plant transformations) of Fe and S in artificial wetlands; (2) passive, in situ treatment of low S mine wastes; (3) genomic characterization of novel microbes; and (4) the creation of frameworks to assess and communicate the merits of emerging mining-related biotechnologies.
For example, iron and sulfur metabolizing microbes from sulfidic mine wastes have been used for cost-effective extraction of low metal concentrations from various mine wastes. While many studies and companies have utilized such consortia for tank-based Au or heap-based Cu extraction, relatively little is known about their metabolism changes over the leaching cycle. Using metagenomics allows us to better understand these biologically catalyzed processes and work towards technology development and optimization, particularly for colder climates.