Tales of the unexpected

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Sometimes nature is just so unpredictable and amazing that it takes your breath away.

Today’s tale comes from a recent episode of the ‘Radio Workshop’, a radio series about science, made in New York, and often replayed on our own Science Show.

The episode in question was about the ‘oops’ factor – mistakes humans have made in an honest pursuit of some advance or outcome. As I’ve said before, this is a key characteristic of the method of science – we don’t bury mistakes, we learn from them. Anyway, to the story. Initially this story is about the mess left behind by mining operations (that’s the ‘oops’ bit), but the story takes a fascinating twist, decades after the mine closed. Please try and stay with it – it’s worth the wait!

I’ll heavily paraphrase, but it goes something like this.

A young couple, each into biology and environmentalism, meets at university in California, and marry within a couple of weeks. The husband subsequently gets a job, which entails a move interstate to Butte, Montana (pronounced ‘bewt’). To their horror, the small town in which they find themselves is the site of a horrific environmental disaster, a huge open-cut copper mine from the thirties, which has since filled up with 40 giga-litres of water. Apparently 1/3rd of the US’s copper came out of this site at the time.

But it didn’t just fill with ordinary water. The rock around the mine site (known as the Berkeley Pit) is infused with pyrites, which, when mixed with air and water, react to produce sulphuric acid. This acid in turn removes the metals from the surrounding rocks – copper, cadmium, zinc, gold, silver, arsenic to name a few. As a result, the lake is a deep red in some places, and blue, grey, green in others where the copper remnants persist. It’s hard to imagine a more toxic mix.

At one point in the 90’s, a flock of 342 snow-geese descended on the lake, as geese do. The next morning, 342 snow-geese carcasses were found floating on the lake, and were collected for autopsies. As expected, some pretty nasty internal lesions were found, as the poor buggers were eaten inside-out by the toxic brew.

While horrified by this, the couple set about studying the mess and its history, and made some interesting discoveries.

When a local scientist brought them a stick encrusted with some green goo, which he’d found floating in the mine pit, they examined it, to find they had discovered an entirely new species of bacteria. Life finds a way, as they say.

The couple have since gone on to develop hundreds of useful compounds from this goo including cancer-fighting compounds.

But this is not the amazing part.

About a year after the first finding, they discovered in small patches was some black, tar-like substance. On subsequent analysis, they discovered that the substance was actually another new bacterium that eats metal atoms – that is, extracts them from the surrounding water. Now this is not new. We have for years used bacteria to clean up toxic metals and oil spills and so on. What is new is the effectiveness of this bacterium. At that time, existing bacteria could extract up to about 15% of the metals out of a given volume of water. This new one was up around 85% – astounding efficiency.

That’s still not the amazing part.

The bacterium was found to be a type of yeast. And that yeast has only ever been found elsewhere in one location…

The rectum of snow-geese.

Now that’s amazing!

______________________________________________________________________________________

You can download the show here and hear the story for yourself, from the mouths of those who were there. This story is in the last ten minutes or so of the show.

And a concise history of the pit here.

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