Scientists at the Institute of Physiological Chemistry and Pathobiochemistry at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany want to prevent the next generation of international conflict over scarce natural resources. So they're trying to reverse-engineer metal-extracting bacteria.
Professor Werner Müller, a molecular biologist with a background in sea research, and his team of mostly Chinese scientists have discovered that manganese nodules and manganese and cobalt crusts that line the deep ocean floor actually have their roots in organic life forms.
Müller and his research partners have found complete chains of bacteria with S-layers in manganese nodules that provided the basis for the synthesis of the biomaterials. "Once the primary layer is present, autocatalysis takes over and the material completes the process itself."
The bacteria starts the process by which manganese is automatically extracted from sea water, forming nodules.
The manganese or colbalt crusts are started by dead unicellular algae.
They are created by coccolithophorides, a form of armoured algae that are completely encased in a protective shell of calcium carbonate. These algae live at a depth of around 100 metres. When they die, their protective shells fall to deeper levels where bonds with manganese ions are formed by means of chemical transformation.
Both crusts contain valuable raw materials for modern manufacturing processes that are in short supply.
Müller and his team think that, if they can replicate the manner by which the bacteria and algae extract the minerals from sea water, they can head off a growing international crisis.
"Perhaps we can use nature as our model, so that in future we will also be able to exploit algae and bacteria to extract manganese and other metals from a seawater environment," explains Müller. This could help to defuse potential future conflict for resources and contribute to sustainable production, without damaging the deep-sea environment.
Currently, nations that even lack the technological capacity to extract nodules or mine the sea floor for minerals are attempting to stake claims to vast swaths of the ocean floor in the hopes that they will be able to have some control over the mineral rights down the line. Müller hopes to head off this future (and potentially armed) conflict by engineering the bacteria and algae to do their transformative work on land, rather than at the depths of the ocean floor. What could possibly go wrong with that?
[Image via NIAID/NIH]