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Microbiology. 2007 Feb;153(Pt 2):315-24.

The microbiology of biomining: development and optimization of mineral-oxidizing microbial consortia.

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  • 1Department of Microbiology, University of Stellenbosch, Private Bag X1, Matieland 7602, South Africa.


Biomining, the use of micro-organisms to recover precious and base metals from mineral ores and concentrates, has developed into a successful and expanding area of biotechnology. While careful considerations are made in the design and engineering of biomining operations, microbiological aspects have been subjected to far less scrutiny and control. Biomining processes employ microbial consortia that are dominated by acidophilic, autotrophic iron- or sulfur-oxidizing prokaryotes. Mineral biooxidation takes place in highly aerated, continuous-flow, stirred-tank reactors or in irrigated dump or heap reactors, both of which provide an open, non-sterile environment. Continuous-flow, stirred tanks are characterized by homogeneous and constant growth conditions where the selection is for rapid growth, and consequently tank consortia tend to be dominated by two or three species of micro-organisms. In contrast, heap reactors provide highly heterogeneous growth environments that change with the age of the heap, and these tend to be colonized by a much greater variety of micro-organisms. Heap micro-organisms grow as biofilms that are not subject to washout and the major challenge is to provide sufficient biodiversity for optimum performance throughout the life of a heap. This review discusses theoretical and pragmatic aspects of assembling microbial consortia to process different mineral ores and concentrates, and the challenges for using constructed consortia in non-sterile industrial-scale operations.

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