The biochemical process by which cyanobacteria gain nutrients from rocks in Chile’s Atacama Desert has inspired engineers at the University of California, Irvine, to think about new ways the microbes could help humans build colonies on the moon and on Mars.
Researchers from UCI’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering and Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Biology used high-resolution electron microscopy and advanced imaging spectroscopy techniques to gain a precise understanding of how microorganisms modify both natural minerals and synthetic nanoceramics. The key factor, scientists say, is that cyanobacteria produce biofilms that dissolve magnetic iron oxide particles in the gypsum rock, then convert magnetite into oxidized hematite.
The team’s findings, which are the subject of a recent article in the journal Organics today, could pave the way for new biomining methods. The authors also said they see the results as a step toward using microorganisms in large-scale 3D printing or additive manufacturing on a useful scale in civil engineering in extreme environments, such as those on the Moon and Mars.
Corresponding author David Kisailus, Professor of Materials at UCI, said: “Through a biological process that has evolved over millions of years, small miners dig into rock, extracting minerals necessary for physiological functions, such as photosynthesis, that enable them to survive. “. . Science and engineering. Could humans use a similar biochemical approach to obtain and process the minerals we find valuable? This project led us in that direction. »
The Atacama Desert is one of the driest and most inhospitable places on Earth ChroococcidiopsisA cyanobacterium found in gypsum samples collected there by the Johns Hopkins team, said co-author Jocelyn DeRugero, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Baltimore, had evolved “the most amazing adaptations to survive in its rocky habitat.”
“Some of these properties include the production of chlorophyll, which absorbs red-hot photons, and the ability to extract water and iron from surrounding minerals,” she added.
Using advanced electron microscopes and spectroscopic instruments, the researchers found evidence of microbes in the gypsum by observing how the minerals within it transformed.
“Cyanobacteria cells enhanced the dissolution of magnetite and the dissolution of iron through the production of abundant extracellular polymeric materials, which lead to the dissolution and oxidation of magnetite to hematite,” DeRugero said. Iron acid production [iron-binding compounds generated by bacteria and fungi] It was enhanced in the presence of magnetite nanoparticles, suggesting their use by cyanobacteria to obtain iron from magnetite. »
Kisailus said the way microorganisms process minerals in their abandoned home got him thinking about our own mining and manufacturing practices.
“When we extract minerals, we often end up with ores that can present challenges for the extraction of precious metals,” he said. “We often have to put these metals through extreme processing to turn them into something of value. This practice can be costly both financially and environmentally.”
Kisailus said he is now studying a biochemical approach using natural or synthetic analogues of iron carriers, enzymes and other secretions to process minerals where only a large mechanical crusher currently works. Jumping from there, he said, there might also be a way to get microorganisms to use similar biochemical capabilities to produce engineered materials on demand in inappropriate places.
“I call it ‘moon shaping’ rather than terraforming,” Kiselos said. “If you want to build something on the moon, instead of having people do it, we can get 3D-printed media for robotic systems and then reconfigure microbes into something of value. This can be done without endangering human life. »
He added that humans do not always need to use Edison’s approaches to learn how to do things.
“This is the main topic of my lab on biomimicry and nanostructured materials. Why try to reinvent the wheel when nature has perfected it over hundreds of millions of years? We just have to extract the secrets and blueprints from what nature does and apply or adapt them to what we need. »
This project was funded by the Army Research Office and supported by tools made available by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The research team also included Wei Huang, a postdoctoral researcher from the Kisselos Lab group. Taifeng Wang, Ph.D, who recently graduated from UCI and now works at Intel; and Cesar Perez-Fernandez of the Johns Hopkins University Department of Biology.
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