Life in deep crystals

I was intrigued last Friday to see this report in the media of giant crystals of gypsum from a cave in Mexico harbouring microbial life. The announcement was made by the discovering scientist at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting. Yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, Penelope Boston indicated that the microbes, which lay dormant for up to 50,000 years in the crystals, were revived in the lab and are most closely related to known microbes from other mine environments, though genetically distinct. Many outlets are reporting on this important scientific finding, which has obvious implications for our understanding how tolerant life really is, and of course astrobiological implications.

This Mexican cave differs drastically from Mynydd Parys of course, not least due to the higher temperature of 58°C,but the cave remained undisturbed until 2000, while Mynydd Parys has been worked and/or visited over thousands of years. In both instances however microbial communities rely on the cycling of iron and sulphur, and both are acidic environments. Gypsum also occurs at Mynydd Parys, though in obviously smaller crystal form!

Looking forward to seeing the Naica Mine results published and comparing them to gypsum communities from Mynydd Parys, hopefully later this year.


Geomicrobiology Network Research in Progress (RIP) Meeting

Three weeks to go until we here at Bangor University in the BART group, host the next Geomicrobiology Network meeting. This event, run over two days, will see invited speakers from the UK and abroad, give their views on the evolution of geomicrobiological research, together with their visions for the future of the field. The second day will feature talks from current young geomicrobiologists from postgraduate to postdoctoral level. Speakers include a PhD student from the BART group (Roseanne Barata Holanda) and three postdocs from the group, Sarah Smith, Eva Pakostova and Rose Jones.

Further details available through this page

Deepest Parys

Wednesday last was my first visit to the 45fm level at Parys mine. How different this level is to the others. Not only was pisanite found along the way in a number of locations, but near the end of the road (so to speak) I came upon a copper-rich, low-iron pool, bright green in colour. This was an unusual find as other pools in Parys are deep red and contain iron in abundance. The ICP-AAS analysis of the pool water also revealed an abundance of aluminium compared to other water pools in the mine system.

Another feature unique to this level is the presence of what the Parys Underground Group have named Giraffe Stope, for reasons obvious from the image below! I’ve no idea as yet what’s causing such a giraffe-like pattern on many of the rocks here, and neither do the group. Such rock patterns appear unique to this area.


The Mineralosphere Concept

My most recent publication, currently available online, was accepted a few weeks ago by Trends in Microbiology. This paper, The Mineralosphere Concept: Mineralogical Control of the Distribution and Function of the Mineral-Associated Bacterial Communities, and co-authored with colleagues Stéphane Uroz, Marie-Pierre Turpault, Cendrella Lepleux and Pascale Frey-Klett, focuses both on the ability of microbes to inhabit mineral environments and their activities therein. We discuss the physical and chemical properties of minerals which makes them suitable environments for mineral colonisation, together with promoting the concept of the mineralosphere.

Life in North Wales mines

Some interesting results from PARMIN to date, with novel cultured and uncultured microbes. More sampling is required to build upon the current picture of microbial diversity in Parys mine, which appears greater than previously thought. While pyrite and quartz dominate at Parys, other minerals are also present, albeit more sparsely, and are more difficult to find. One location is shown below, where small iron-oxide crystals are side by side with crystals containing high concentrations of aluminium.


Fe-oxide and aluminium-containing crystals underground at Parys mine

DNA amplification is possible from the majority of Parys samples thus far, however microscopy shows that, in at least some samples, individual cells are impossible to identify. One of my favourite images of last week is this SEM of mellanterite from Cae Coch. Close-up images of individual crystals reveal the presence of rod-like structures which appear to be prokaryotes based on size and carbon signal. Other SEM images of Parys minerals may be seen on the SEM page.

mellanterite from Cae Coch

SEM image of Cae Coch mellanterite

Branching out – visiting Cae Coch

A couple of weeks ago I visited another disused pyrite mine in North Wales, Cae Coch. While both Cae Coch and Parys are pyrite mines, the two are very different in terms of how they were worked and the minerals currently present, though of course there is some overlap. Mellanterite is quite abundant at Cae Coch, but I’ve yet to see it at Parys. Navigation within Cae Coch is much simpler than Parys, though getting to the mine itself proves much more difficult, as I found out a couple of weeks ago.

I was joined on my trip by Olly Burrows of the Parys Underground Group (PUG) and together we cordoned off a section of Cae Coch to prevent disturbance to natural formations that arose as a result of the mining processes. Biologically speaking Cae Coch is relatively well characterised by Barrie Johnson and his team over the years, though it has been a number of years since microbiological investigations were undertaken at the site. As part of PARMIN I will undertake some sampling of additional mineral environments at Cae Coch, for comparison with Parys mine.

Beautiful Blue!

One mineral that is very abundant in Parys is pisanite, an iron-rich mineral found in pyrite-containing environments.In Parys pisanite occurs in many locations and takes various forms, from deep blue to blue-green and the very altered orange.

The images below show two of the current pisanite formations underground in Parys. Note now the relatively small stalagmites in the second one are themselves blue like the pisanite, rather than the typical orange/brown found elsewhere in the system.

Nothing to report on the microbiology as yet from Parys, but watch this space. Both myself and my host group here at Bangor University (BART) will be attending the UK Geomicrobiology Network meeting in Leeds on June 24th, where hopefully some results will be presented.

Fantastic blue colour to this 'pristine' pisanite at Parys

Fantastic blue colour to this ‘pristine’ pisanite at Parys

Even the stalactites are blue in this pisanite-dominated chamber

Even the stalagmites are blue in this pisanite-dominated chamber

Getting to know Parys Mine (PARMIN project)

So far I’ve taken three trips down to Parys mine with the Parys Underground Group to get a feel for the site and the mineralogy. What an interesting environment this abandoned copper mine is. Difficult to decipher what lies beneath the ochre that covers the walls and ceilings in most of the passages so finding minerals is tricky. Definitely some interesting niches from a microbiology perspective.

Culture-based work has begun on some preliminary samples, with fungi abundant as expected. The hard work begins next week when I focus attentions on more extreme and novel organisms.

I hope to get some decent images of the site to post soon. Lighting is an issue as one can imagine and it’s difficult to get conditions optimal for a decent photo. In the interim there are plenty of photos on the Parys Underground Group webpage.

PARMIN Project Commences!

Today marks the beginning of my 24-month Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship, focusing on the geomicrobiology of the subterranean Parys mine in North Wales. This project will involve extensive collaborations between myself and colleagues from Europe and the US, with the goal of advancing our understanding of the geomicrobiology of such low-temperature extreme ecosystems. More details will follow in due course on the PARMIN page, which is dedicated to the project……

Please feel free to send any queries directly via this website

The birth of a collaboration in riverine ecology

This week marked the first data collection fieldtrip in a collaborative project between myself and a colleague (Dr. Ian Drew) in geography and geology here at Manchester Metropolitan University. Together we are interested in the microbial ecology of an urban river system in Manchester (UK).

Coming from completely different scientific disciplines, we are each interested in different aspects of the project. While my focus is the diversity and activity of the microbes, Ian is concerned with how this relates to the ecosystem, particularly river restoration processes. It is clearly early days yet in the project, so exact details about our work will remain out of the public domain for the present. We anticipate that our research, the objectives of which will answer or at least attempt to answer, some pertinent questions regarding riverine microbial communities, will be of interest to scientists in diverse disciplines.

Some of our field kit

Our field trip also provided an opportunity for my current Nuffield Foundation student Natasha, who is on a four-week placement this August, to participate in a newly-developed research project and delve right in at the first key milestone. Natasha, over the course of the next three weeks, will perform various analyses on samples we collected earlier this week, focusing on bacteria which she can culture and characterise in the laboratory. Although without previous experience of microbiology, Natasha has proven to be a fast learner. Her results will provide the foundation for Environmental Microbiology undergraduate project students later this year.