Representative image. Photograph:( Reuters )
In her laboratory in Antofagasta, which happens to be an industrial town 1,100-kilometers north of Santiago, the biotechnologist named Nadac Reales has been carrying out tests with extremophiles, which is organisms that live in extreme environments
In a recent development in Chile, a scientist is testing "metal-eating" bacteria to help her clean up the country's highly-polluting mining industry.
In her laboratory in Antofagasta, which happens to be an industrial town 1,100-kilometers north of Santiago, the biotechnologist named Nadac Reales has been carrying out tests with extremophiles, which is organisms that live in extreme environments. Reales came up with her idea while she was conducting tests at a mining plant using microorganisms to improve the extraction of copper.
Speaking to AFP, she said, "I realised there were various needs in the mining industry, for example, what happened with the metallic waste."
While some metals can be recycled in smelting plants, others, such as HGV truck hoppers can hold 50 tons of rock and are often discarded in Chile's Atacama desert.
In her research, Reales, who now runs her own company Rudanac Biotec, concentrated on iron-oxidising bacteria, which is called Leptospirillum.
She extracted the bacteria from the Tatio geysers located 4,200 meters above sea level, some 350 kilometres from Antofagasta.
She said that the bacteria "live in an acidic environment that is practically unaffected by relatively high concentrations of most metals."
"At first the bacteria took two months to disintegrate a nail."
However, when starved, they had to adapt and find a way of feeding themselves. After two years of trials, the result was a marked increase in the speed at which the bacteria "ate," devouring a nail in just three days. As per Reales, "chemical and microbiological tests" have proved the bacteria are not harmful to humans or the environment.
Drina Vejar, a microbiologist who is working with Reales said, "We've always seen a lot of potential in this project that has already passed an important test in the laboratory."
"It's really necessary at this time when we have to plan for a more sustainable development, especially in all these cities with so many polluting industries."
Various mining companies have shown interest in the research but the company needs investment to move on to its next stage of trials.
Reales says she needs money to see if her method will "eat a medium-sized beam or a hopper."