4The Berkeley Pit Bacteria
The Berkeley Pit is an old, open-pit copper mine in Butte, Mont. It was closed and left pretty much unattended in 1982. Since then, the pit has been gradually pooling water and forming a 900-foot-deep lake with more water seeping in every day. "What about it?" you may ask. Who wouldn't want to replace a coppery hell-pit with a nice, peaceful lake?
Well, that's the kicker. The water soaks up the remaining ore from the ground, leaving it the approximate consistency and acidity of lemon juice laced with copper. And lead. And arsenic. And sulfuric acid. It's deadly to swim in and insists on reminding everyone of that fact by slurping up flocks of geese every once in awhile. What was once known as "the richest hill in the world" has essentially turned into an acid murder pool.
Acid Murder Pool: Touring Spring 2011.
And it gets worse.
More and more water flows into the pit every day, and it is estimated to reach a critical mass by 2021. After that, the water won't flow into the pit but flow from it, toward the surrounding areas and back in the ground water. The effect that would have on nearby ecosystems is similar to pouring 30 billion gallons of battery acid all over Montana, because that's exactly what is going to happen. Steps are being taken to prevent this, of course, but processes are slow and we are really running against time.
And our filtration processes are a bit slow.
It turns out we have a surprising ally in this fight. In 1995, a biochemist named William Chatham noticed something strange in the pit. A green slime that, upon closer inspection, proved to be a living organism. It was wallowing happily in the bull blood-colored poison that is the pit's "water." The slime turned out to be a protozoan called Euglena mutabilis that can not only survive the toxic metals and acid, but is thriving.
Life is wonderful. And a little bit horrible.
It works by way of photosynthesis, the same process plants use to make oxygen. Only, Euglena mutabilis uses it to oxidize the metals in the water by increasing the general oxygen level of the pit. This, in turn, causes the metals to harmlessly precipitate away.
What's more, this protozoan badass eats the iron in the water. And what does it crap? Why, a potential cure for cancer of course.
Also diamonds. It pees diamonds.
Also, it's not battling alone. Scientists have found a whole host of different bacteria and fungi in the pit as well, all fighting the good fight. So what we're saying is if you give Mother Nature a pool of acid, she'll turn it into a goddamned ecosystem.
3A Bacteria That Eats Poison and Makes Electricity
Quick, what's the first thing that comes in your mind when we say "bacteria"? If there's even one amongst you who answered that question with "electricity," then chances are you're either a lying bastard or Charles Milliken of the Medical University of South Carolina. In which case, can we call you Chuck?
Chuck and his colleague, Harold May, are microbiologists with a rather interesting feather in their matching scientist caps: They have found a form of bacteria that is able to generate electricity. The bacteria in question is a member of a genus known as Desulfitobacterium, and although bacteria has proven before its ability to produce small amounts of electricity, this genus of bacteria apparently has never really applied itself. We have no idea why it has decided to make electricity now.
To power tiny, tiny guitars.
Presumably it just saw an opportunity to be helpful and give us something in return since we keep giving it all those delicious bleaches, pesticides and chemicals to absorb; the Desulfitobacterium makes its electricity as a by-product of making toxic waste harmless.
We're not talking about barely measurable sparks here -- the research has only begun, but already the two scientists have studied batches that are capable of continuously generating electricity at levels that could be used to operate small electronic devices. So if you've ever had a hankering for a germ-powered vibrator, your dream is close to realization.
Pleasure: Powered by STDs.