Ms Margaret Bryant
Director, External Affairs
CSIRO Land and Water
Private Bag
PO Wembley WA 6014
Phone:+61 8 9333 6215
Fax:+61 8 9383 7208
Mobile: +61 0417 247 241
Mr Julian Cribb
CSIRO National Awareness
PO Box 225
Dickson ACT 2602
Phone:+61 2 6276 6244
Fax:+61 2 6276 6821
Mobile: +61 0418 639 245
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On April 14, a unique Australian scientific mission sets sail from Cairns in North Queensland to plumb the depths of the Pacific Ocean for extraordinary lifeforms that can survive in boiling water and which dine on minerals containing copper, gold and nickel.
The CSIRO expedition aboard the research vessel Franklin will conduct a pioneering search of active volcanic vents a kilometre down on the seabed of the Manus Basin, north of Papua New Guinea.
Their aim is to discover "extremophile" microbes endowed with the natural ability to process minerals at high temperature, to help make Australia’s $37 billion mineral export industry cleaner, greener, safer and more competitive.
The search will be conducted in an eerie landscape of smoking undersea chimneys that pump mineral fluids from deep in the earth’s mantle into the surrounding ocean, shattered mineral columns resembling ancient ruins and hills mantled in snow-white carpets of bacteria and organic hydrates — compounds which can only exist at the extreme pressures of the deep sea.
The project was initiated by Dr Bruce Hobbs, Chief of CSIRO Exploration and Mining, Dr Rod Hill, Chief of CSIRO Minerals and Dr Dave Dekker of CSIRO Exploration & Mining.
Dr Ray Binns of CSIRO Exploration and Mining discovered these particular deposits and will lead the shipborne expedition, which is an international collaboration.
CSIRO is working closely with Papua New Guinea authorities to ensure the scientific and commercial interests of our nearest neighbour are protected. "Their scientists will directly benefit from participation in this expedition," says Dr Dekker.
Dr Hobbs says the goal is to find particular microbes that can be used to process minerals on dry land, and so develop more efficient and cleaner ways to win metals.
"When times are tough in the minerals industry, the miners who survive are the ones who can obtain pure minerals for the lowest cost.
"This trip is all about prospecting — but in this case, we’re prospecting for microbes rather than actual minerals," he says. "To do so we’re exploring exactly the same sort of system as the ones that formed Australia’s mightiest orebodies, like Broken Hill and Mt Isa."
Dr Hobbs believes the deep sea bugs will enable Australia’s miners to exploit lower grade ore deposits, extract metals more cheaply, clean up waste streams and may even improve mine safety.
Microbiologist Dr Peter Franzmann says that the mineral-mining bugs are possibly relatives of some of the earliest forms of life to emerge on the planet, more than three billion years ago.
"Back then, conditions were similar to what we now see in these seafloor hydrothermal vents — high temperatures, intense pressure, lots of volcanic activity, darkness, with the nutrients to sustain life pouring out of the earth itself."
While similar mineral-eating bugs exist on land — and are used in some mining industries — the researchers expect these "extremophile" bacteria to be able to process mineral ores far more efficiently.
"The minerals are pouring out of the earth in fluids at temperatures of 300-400 degrees into the much colder sea water. The bugs live right where the superheated fluid meets the sea and the temperatures are between 80 and 110 degrees, at pressures around 150 atmospheres.
"We know they thrive down there. Some of the undersea landscapes are smothered in a mat of bacteria, dining on the mineral-rich sediments."
More information:
Dr Dave Dekker, CSIRO Exploration & Mining
(07) 4051 8955 or 0418 737 480
Dr Ray Binns, CSIRO Exploration & Mining
(07) 4051 8955
Dr Peter Franzmann, CSIRO Land & Water
(07) 4051 8955
Ms Margaret Bryant, CSIRO Land & Water
08 9333 6215 or 0417 247 241
Media wishing to film or photograph on board the Franklin prior to its sailing, please ring 018 288 648 or 0419 571 983