Could microbes hold the key to more environmentally friendly mines? | The Northern Miner

Prof. Lesley Warren in The Norther Miner, January 9, 2017.

 

Geochemist and professor Lesley Warren (right) collects water samples for geochemical analyses from a waste deposit undergoing reclamation.

Ancient microbes could offer insight on better mining wastewater strategies

Professor Lesley Warren (standing, at right) and her colleagues are mining the genomes of microbes that thrive in wastewater generated by the resource extraction industry. Insights into how these organisms derive energy from metals and sulphur compounds could lead to new strategies for preventing pollution and optimizing mine reclamation. (Photo courtesy Lesley Warren)

This story originally appeared on U of T Engineering News.

Professor Lesley Warren (standing, at right) and her colleagues are mining the genomes of microbes that thrive in wastewater generated by the resource extraction industry. Insights into how these organisms derive energy from metals and sulphur compounds could lead to new strategies for preventing pollution and optimizing mine reclamation. (Photo courtesy Lesley Warren)

Professor Lesley Warren (standing, at right) and her colleagues are mining the genomes of microbes that thrive in wastewater generated by the resource extraction industry. Insights into how these organisms derive energy from metals and sulphur compounds could lead to new strategies for preventing pollution and optimizing mine reclamation. (Photo courtesy Lesley Warren)

Wastewater from a mine doesn’t sound like a cozy habitat, but for untold numbers of microorganisms, it’s home sweet home. A new research project led by Professor Lesley Warren (CivE) will examine how these microbes make their living by studying their genes — an insight that could help further reduce the environmental footprint of the mining industry. The $3.7-million endeavour is funded in part by Genome Canada through the Large Scale Applied Research Projects (LSARP) program.

Extracting valuable metals such as copper, nickel and gold from rocks, which typically contain only a few weight percent metals, requires substantial amounts of water. All wastewater generated must be cleaned to strict federal guidelines before it can be discharged back into the environment. It is these wastewaters that the microorganisms studied by Warren and her team thrive in.

“These wastewaters contain a variety of sulphur compounds that certain bacteria can use for energy,” says Warren, who holds the Claudette Mackay-Lassonde Chair in Mineral Engineering at U of T. “Their ability to do so evolved billions of years ago, long before more complex life arrived on the scene. If the history of Earth were a 24-hour clock, they have been around for over 23 hours, while we humans have been around for only 17 seconds.”

However, our ability to investigate these bacteria and most importantly how they are cycling these sulphur compounds, which will influence the quality of mining wastewaters, has been very limited until now. If these sulphur compounds become too concentrated, the company has to implement costly chemical treatment systems to make the water acceptable for release and avoid toxicity problems in lakes or streams downstream from the mine.

Dr. Lesley Warren is the Claudette MacKay-Lassonde Chair in Mineral Engineering within the Department of Civil Engineering.

Dr. Lesley Warren is the Claudette MacKay-Lassonde Chair in Mineral Engineering within the Department of Civil Engineering.

Warren believes that genomics can help. She has spent years travelling mine sites from Canada to South Africa to better understand the sulphur geochemistry of their wastewaters and how bacteria are implicated. “I have always preferred dirty water to clean,” she jokes.

For this project, Warren and her team will apply genomics directly in tandem with comprehensive geochemical analyses and modeling to wastewaters. She will collaborate closely with Professor Jill Banfield, a trailblazer in environmental genomics at the University of California, Berkeley, Professor Christian Baron, a microbial biochemist from the Université de Montréal, and Dr. Simon Apte, a research scientist in analytical chemistry and geochemical modeling from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) Land and Water in Australia, to unravel the role played by these sulphur-loving microbes in important geochemical processes affecting mining wastewaters.

“Mining companies know that microorganisms are driving these reactions, but its still a black box” says Warren. “The lack of available technologies has meant that there has been little research to determine which bacteria are doing what, which ones could serve as early warning signals, or those that could actually be used as the biological treatment itself. Most importantly, mining companies don’t know which levers to pull to control the system.”

Those levers are what Warren and her colleagues aim to identify. Informed by genomic and geochemical insights they plan to develop new tools that can help mine managers make better decisions about how to manage their wastewater. “Once we understand the microbes and how they affect wastewater geochemistry, we can pinpoint the drivers of their behaviour: Which wastewater compounds are they using? Do they like it hot? Do they like it cold? We can adjust those drivers to design new processes that do what we want them to do. Essentially we are mining the bacteria that already exist in these wastewaters as a biotechnology resource.”

With this new knowledge, mines could ensure conditions that encourage the growth of organisms that break down toxic compounds, or prevent the growth of organisms that produce those toxic compounds in the first place. The team is collaborating with three Canadian mining companies, as well as two engineering consulting firms, Advisian and Ecological and Regulatory Solutions. In addition, the Mining Association of Canada, the Ontario Mining Association and CSIRO are further supporting the project.

The project also has the endorsement of the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum (CIM), the leading not-for-profit technical society of professionals in the Canadian minerals, metals, materials and energy industries. CIM National Executive Director, Jean Vavrek, commented: “CIM are in full support of this exciting new project.  While genomics itself is relatively new to the mineral resource industry, it has the potential to provide significant returns and generate new areas for investment in the sector.  We consider this a flagship project and will continue to follow Dr. Warren and her team closely as they pioneer genomics research for mine wastewater characterization and possibly treatment.”

“The mining industry has driven this project from its inception because they want to reduce their environmental footprint. Harnessing the biological potential of their wastewaters will facilitate the development of such strategies to achieve this goal,” says Warren. “So many of the organisms we’re finding are new to science. The chances that we are going to find organisms that are capable of doing creative things that could be useful are very high.”

Remembering Margaret and John Bahen

Margaret & John Bahen

This story originally appeared on U of T Engineering News.

Margaret & John Bahen

Margaret and John Bahen (CivE 5T4). Both U of T alumni, their visionary philanthropy is seeding breakthroughs in medicine, engineering, math and computer science.

The University of Toronto has lost two remarkable alumni and supporters. Margaret and John Bahen (CivE 5T4) both passed away in November, within days of one another. The couple, who met at U of T and raised three children together, leave behind many friends and family members, as well as a strong legacy at their alma mater.

The Bahens gave generously to the Faculties of Medicine and Applied Science & Engineering. Their commitment to advancing medical research and scholarship, and their lasting contributions to the campus through their support of the Bahen Centre for Information Technology, leave an indelible mark.

“The University is proud to count John and Margaret among our most distinguished alumni and champions,” says U of T President Meric Gertler. “We greatly appreciate their dedication to advancing excellence in research and scholarship across disciplines, and their visionary understanding of how shared space in state-of-the-art facilities fosters innovation and collaboration.”

John and Margaret’s legacy of philanthropy to U of T Engineering is embodied in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology. Completed in 2002, the building houses advanced research and teaching facilities, which support faculty, staff and students in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, the Department of Computer Science and the Department of Mathematics.

“It is impossible to overstate the impact of John and Margaret’s generosity,” says Cristina Amon, Dean of the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering. “Their support of engineering research and the visionary design of the Bahen Centre as a focal point for collaborative information-technology research will be felt by U of T and Canadians for generations to come.”

A 1954 graduate of the Department of Civil Engineering, John Bahen began his career at McNamara Construction, specializing in large-scale projects such as hydroelectric dams and major highways. In 1980, he was appointed President of Peter Kiewit Sons’ Co. Ltd., where he directed landmark projects such as the SkyTrain light rail system in Vancouver. Upon his retirement in 1994, he and classmate Joey Tanenbaum co-established the Bahen/Tanenbaum Chairs in Civil Engineering, which focus on applications of structural engineering.

Professor Michael Collins (CivE) held one of the endowed chairs for 19 years. “While engineering professors should conduct research, teach and provide service to the community and the profession, it is my belief that teaching students the basic principles of the art of engineering is the central role,” says Collins. “The Bahen/Tanenbaum funds have been a significant factor in enabling me to greatly increase the number of students I teach while still maintaining very high standards.”

“In making a generous commitment of time and financial support to the Bahen Centre for Information Technology at a crucial time in the Faculty’s development, John and Margaret Bahen had a major and lasting impact on the Faculty’s quest to be counted among the world’s leading engineering schools,” said Michael Charles, former Dean of the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering. “My wife, Barbara, and I are grateful that we had the opportunity to know and enjoy the friendship of Margaret and John Bahen, and to witness their admirable loyalty to the University.”

At the Faculty of Medicine, the Bahens’ support is making a major impact on health care. “John and Margaret Bahen have left a great legacy in medical research and scholarship,” says Trevor Young, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine. “Their support continues to be felt through promising work in epilepsy and occupational therapy.”

In memory of their late son Michael, Margaret and John Bahen created the Michael Bahen Chair in Epilepsy Research. Chair-holder Dr. Berge Minassian has discovered genetic mutations underlying several types of epilepsies, including the severest type—Lafora disease. These discoveries have led to the identification of a potential drug to counter the disease, which will soon be undergoing clinical trials. The Bahens also contributed generously to the Epilepsy Research Fund within the Clinician Scientist Training Program in the Department of Paediatrics.

“The Bahens have brought us to the threshold of overcoming severe epilepsy,” says Minassian. “I am extremely grateful for their support, which has been crucial to this research and continues to push this area of medicine forward.”

Following her graduation with a diploma in Occupational Therapy in 1952, Margaret Bahen worked at Sunnybrook Hospital’s Veterans K Wing. She created the Pamela Cowie Gray Generosity of Spirit Award in the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, to honour her lifelong friend from the program, and remained connected to the department and to U of T’s rehabilitation sector.

“We are tremendously grateful for Margaret Bahen’s support,” says the department’s Chair, Susan Rappolt. “As an alumna of the program, she understood the value of hope and engagement as a resource for health, and was dedicated to helping future students pursue research and professional development.”

In 2001, then-University President Robert Prichard and his wife Ann Wilson established the endowed Margaret Bahen Gold Medal in Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, a convocation award given annually to a student excelling in academic courses, clinical fieldwork and overall leadership.

“John and Margaret were strong champions of our faculties of Medicine and Engineering, demonstrating their belief in the ability of academic research and higher education to transform people’s lives and build better societies,” says David Palmer, who is Vice-President Advancement of U of T. “The Bahens were standard-bearers of philanthropy in this country and will be remembered for their thoughtful and generous vision.”

Two U of T Engineering researchers awarded Canada Research Chairs

In the latest round of Canada Research Chair announcments, Engineering professors Penney Gilbert (left) and Marianne Hatzopoulou (right) were named as Tier 2 chairholders. The CRC program aims to help Canada attract and retain research leaders in engineering and the natural sciences, health sciences, humanities and social sciences.
This story originally appeared on U of T Engineering News.
In the latest round of Canada Research Chair announcments, Engineering professors Penney Gilbert (left) and Marianne Hatzopoulou (right) were named as Tier 2 chairholders. The CRC program aims to help Canada attract and retain research leaders in engineering and the natural sciences, health sciences, humanities and social sciences.

In the latest round of Canada Research Chair announcments, Engineering professors Penney Gilbert (left) and Marianne Hatzopoulou (right) were named as Tier 2 chairholders. The CRC program aims to help Canada attract and retain research leaders in engineering and the natural sciences, health sciences, humanities and social sciences.

Professors Penney Gilbert (IBBME) and Marianne Hatzopoulou (CivE) have been named Tier 2 Canada Research Chairs (CRCs) in an announcement made today by federal science minister Kirsty Duncan at the University of Toronto Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work.

The two U of T Engineering researchers are among the 25 U of T faculty members to receive CRC appointments. They join 216 current chairholders across the University of Toronto.

“I would like to extend my heartfelt  congratulations to the new and renewed Canada Research Chairs. The Government  of Canada is proud to support talented researchers whose hard work will improve  our scientific understanding and strengthen Canada’s reputation for research  excellence,” said Minister Duncan, who is herself a U of T alumna. “The Chairs’ efforts will also provide us with the evidence needed to inform decisions that help us build a vibrant society and a strong middle class.”

Professor Hatzopoulou holds the CRC in Transportation and Air Quality for her research into how emissions are generated by on-road vehicles, dispersed in urban environments and who is exposed. Through her collaborative work with epidemiologists and health scientists, Hatzopoulou is working to better understand how traffic patterns, road design and characteristics of the built environment can be modified to improve urban air quality and help vulnerable individuals reduce their exposure.

“Receiving this appointment is an opportunity to advance research in an area of growing concern for rapidly expanding world cities,” said Hatzopoulou. “It will also help provide scientific evidence for the often controversial decisions on urban transportation system expansions and their effects on the air we breathe.”

“I am very honoured by this appointment, and for the recognition of my research team’s efforts toward unlocking the secrets that permit the human body to heal itself,” said Gilbert, who was named the CRC in Endogenous Repair. She received the appointment for her research into the cues that “wake up” muscle stem cells and direct them to repair skeletal damage. Along with her team, Gilbert hopes to decipher these cues and inform the development of new drugs, therapies and treatments that restore strength to muscles that are wasting as a result of aging or disease.

“We’re extremely proud of the leadership and research excellence demonstrated by Professors Hatzopoulou and Gilbert, and I am pleased to congratulate them on this recognition,” said Professor David Sinton (MIE), interim vice-dean, research for the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering. “We’re also grateful for this investment in our Faculty as our researchers continue to work across disciplines to address the world’s most pressing challenges.”

The CRC program was launched in 2000 to help the country attract and retain research leaders in engineering and the natural sciences, health sciences, humanities and social sciences. Tier 1 Chairs last for seven years, and recognize outstanding researchers acknowledged by their peers as world leaders in their fields. Tier 2 Chairs are for exceptional emerging researchers and last for five years.