University of British Columbia Professor Scott Dunbar of the school’s Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering has pioneered a way to genetically engineer viruses to bind with minerals.
Along with colleagues, his team has developed a method to selectively “breed” a viral family to bind to specific minerals. In other words, they are developing viri that can find and bind to a chosen mineral in a sludge pile!
The mining research team found that it is possible to identify proteins on viri called bacteriophages that can bind to various minerals (in this case it was sphalerite (the primary ore mineral of zinc), and copper iron sulfide).
These viri are able to bind to the mineral/metal of choice because when the virus binds to the mineral that it is attracted to, it changes the physical and chemical characteristics of the mineral, including its electrical charge. So, the mineral in question is even more different than the others its mixed in with, and therefore also easier to separate out.
The physical and chemical changes caused by [the] phage may be the basis for a highly selective method of mineral separation with better recovery. Another possible application is bioremediation, where metals are removed from contaminated water” says Dunbar.
While we’re a long way from being able to use viri to clean up our messes, there is a lot of promise in a technology like this.
Photo credit: Martin Dee, courtesy of UBC Public Affairs [social_buttons]
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