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Tuesday, 18 January, 2000, 17:41 GMT
Aussies plan a bug hunt

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

Smoker This smoker is over two metres tall
Australian scientists are to probe the depths of the Pacific Ocean for some extraordinary life forms that can survive boiling water and which live on minerals that contain copper, gold and nickel.

A team of researchers sponsored by Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) is about to mount a pioneering search of active volcanic vents on the seabed of the Manus Basin, north of Papua New Guinea.

The search will be conducted in an eerie landscape of smoking undersea chimneys that pump mineral fluids from deep in the Earth's mantle into the surrounding ocean.

The mineral columns, called black smokers, resemble ancient ruins and hills, mantled in snow-white carpets of bacteria and organic hydrates - compounds which can only exist at the extreme pressures of the deep sea.

Dr Ray Binns of CSIRO Exploration and Mining discovered these particular deposits and will lead the expedition.

Contaminated land

The goal is to find microbes that can be used to process minerals on dry land, and so develop more efficient and cleaner ways to extract metals from ores as well as from contaminated land.

"When times are tough in the minerals industry, the miners who survive are the ones who can obtain pure minerals for the lowest cost. This trip is all about prospecting - but in this case, we're prospecting for microbes rather than actual minerals," he says.

 Black smokers were discovered in the late 1970s

Such bacteria, or "extremophiles" as they are known, have fascinated scientists in recent years.

"They thrive in extreme situations," says biologist Dr Peter Franzmann of CSIRO Land & Water, and a member of the research team.

"Because they operate at very high temperatures, around 100degC, they are extremely efficient at what they do - which includes extracting minerals like copper, gold, zinc, nickel, manganese and lead from the mineral-rich fluids spewing out of these hydrothermal vents."

Early Earth conditions

Dr Franzmann says that the mineral-mining bugs could be relatives of some of the earliest forms of life to emerge on the planet, more than three billion years ago.

"Back then, conditions were similar to what we now see in these seafloor hydrothermal vents - high temperatures, intense pressure, lots of volcanic activity, darkness, with the nutrients to sustain life pouring out of the Earth itself.

"We know they thrive down there. Some of the undersea landscapes are smothered in a mat of bacteria, dining on the mineral-rich sediments."

It is known that the deep-sea organisms can survive the trip to the surface and be grown under laboratory conditions. Researchers led by Dr Martin Houchin of CSIRO Minerals will then explore whether the bugs can be used in large-scale mining operations as part of a process to extract metals from sulphide ores.

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