The application of biotechnologies in the mining sector has intensified over the last 30 years, driven by the increasing demand for metals associated with the rise in energy costs and the awareness for environmentally responsible mining practices. Acidophilic prokaryotes play an important role in biohydrometallurgy, facilitating the solubilisation and recovery of base metals from ores and waste materials. The potential of novel acidophiles of the phylum Firmicutes for
applications in biohydrometallurgical processes is examined in this thesis. Eight strains of extremely acidophilic bacteria were studied and shown to belong to the proposed novel genus “Acidibacillus”. These had been isolated previously from several distinct global locations and were shown to be obligately heterotrophic bacteria with potential to carry out tasks critical to biomining such as regenerating ferric iron (by catalysing the dissimilatory oxidation of ferrous
iron), generating sulfuric acid (by the oxidation of zero-valent sulfur and tetrathionate; two strains only), and removing potentially inhibitory dissolved organic carbon. These isolates also demonstrated the ability to catalyse the dissimilatory reduction of ferric iron in anaerobic conditions. Results obtained during this study provide the basis for future research to assess their potential roles in microbial consortia applied in the bio-processing of metal ores. A novel
obligately anaerobic acidophilic Firmicute (strain I2511) isolated from sediment obtained from an abandoned copper mine, was characterised in terms of its phylogeny and physiology. This isolate formed a separated clade within the Firmicutes, and was considered to represent a novel candidate genus. It also displayed a unique set of physiological traits, distinct from currently validated species of acidophilic Firmicutes. The isolate was an obligate anaerobe
that grew via zero-valent sulfur (ZVS) respiration, generating H2S over a wide pH range (1.8 - 5.0), and also catalysed the dissimilatory reduction of ferric iron. Strains of acidophilic sulfatereducing bacteria (aSRB), also Firmicutes, were shown to reduce ZVS at pH as low as 3. These aSRB, together with isolate I2511, populated a novel variant of a low pH sulfidogenic bioreactor. The “hybrid sulfidogenic bioreactor” (HSB) operated using both sulfate and ZVS as electron acceptors, and glycerol as electron donor. The bioreactor successfully remediated and recovered zinc from circum-neutral pH mine-impacted waters with distinct chemical composition collected from two abandoned lead/zinc mines in the U.K. The microbial consortium used in this system proved to be robust, in which the HSB generated H2S consistently under a wide pH range (2 – 7). Experiments demonstrated that H2S could also be generated abiotically in a non-inoculated low pH reactor, by the chemical reaction of ZVS and
zero-valent iron to form iron sulfide, and the consequent acid dissolution of the latter. Operational costs and the advantages of biogenic and abiotic generation of H2S for recovery of transition metals from mine waters are discussed.