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The Q? Blog

Not Just Menaces, Microbes are also Mineral-Making Machines

by Devin Reese -- Feb 26, 2015

Devin is the lead digital science writer for the Q?rius website. She writes and gathers media for the Smithsonian Science How? webcast series,...

This scanning electron microscope image shows fungi making bead-like minerals (elemental selenium). Image from Carla Rosenfeld, Smithsonian.
This scanning electron microscope image shows fungi making bead-like minerals (elemental selenium). Image from Carla Rosenfeld, Smithsonian.

A microbe is a tiny organism, microscopic in size. We often think of microbes as menaces, such as pathogenic bacteria or fungi that cause disease. In fact, microbes are also necessary for life because of their impacts on the distribution of essential nutrients in ecosystems. Nearly every element on this planet is affected in some way by microbes. And, microbes are found in just about every habitat on Earth, ranging from the depths of the ocean to freezing Antarctica. 

Microbes are incredible, compact, chemical-processing machines. They attach to the surfaces of minerals, where they may dissolve or transform them, sometimes forming new minerals in the process. For example, one handful of fertile soil contains millions of microbes, many of which are dissolving minerals and releasing chemicals, giving the soil the elemental composition that supports plant life. 

But, the mineral-processing power of microbes goes way beyond the properties of soil. Microbes interact with coal and shale to manufacture natural gas. Microbes extract usable copper from ore. Thanks to their interactions with minerals, microbes have been harnessed as agents of bioremediation, using biological systems to clean up pollution. Both bacteria and fungi play roles in detoxifying metallic pollutants.  

Microbes are even able to clean up polluted water discharging from old coal mines. Find out more by watching a “Smithsonian Science How” webcast titled Mineral Transformations-Demystifying Microbes on the Q?rius website. Dr. Cara Santelli, a geologist formerly at the National Museum of Natural History, will discuss and answer questions. Get teaching resources to support your webcast experience.