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AS GOOD AS GOLD

The Extremophiles of the Sanford Lab

In 2009 the former Homestake Mine was a dark, wet, and difficult place to conduct research. The deepest mine in North America began filling with water following its closure in 2002. As momentum built to turn the mine into an underground lab, pumps were installed to dewater the flooded shafts and tunnels. As the water receded, Rajesh Sani, PhD, was among the first researchers to enter the deeper sections of the mine.

“We went 5,000 feet deep, for sampling which took a great deal of effort,” says Sani, an associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at SD Mines.

Sani and his team were not deep underground hunting for precious minerals, they were looking for bugs. “The microbes we found were as good as gold,” he says with a smile.

Extremophiles are microorganisms that live in harsh environments. They have learned to thrive in places like the geothermal vents of the mid-Atlantic rift, the frigid waters of Antarctic lakes, or the veins of hot water found in tiny cracks deep underground. Extremophiles have evolved unique characteristics that make them very useful to scientists like Sani. Twelve years after that first trip, the former Homestake Mine is now the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF). Today, the microbes discovered inside SURF are at the center of exciting new research at SD Mines.

The BuG ReMeDEE

In 2017, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded a $6 million grant to Sani and his team to study the range of extremophiles that consume methane. The project is named Building Genome-to-Phenome Infrastructure for Regulating Methane in Deep and Extreme Environments (BuG ReMeDEE). This research (pronounced “bug remedy”) is helping scientists better understand the methane cycle in the hot water fissures under Yellowstone National Park and deep inside SURF. The methane cycle is the generation and consumption of methane by various microbes.

Researchers like Saurabh Dhiman, PhD, in the chemical and biological engineering department are also exploring how some of these microbes can be genetically engineered to better convert methane into value-added products or reduce the impact of future methane emissions on the environment. Venkata Gadhamshetty, PhD, civil and environmental engineering department, and Navanietha Rathinam, PhD, chemical and biological engineering department, will be converting methane into biopolymers and electricity using SURF extremophiles. The research could also open doors for new economic development opportunities in industry that can utilize these genetically modified microbes for processing greenhouse gas and converting it to biofuel, biodegradable plastics or electricity.

“This BuG ReMeDEE consortium will garner the world’s attention on the significance of analyzing the methane regulation in deep subsurface and extreme environments,” says Sani the principal investigator of BuG ReMeDEE.

Converting Plants to Plastic

The extremophiles discovered in the Sanford Lab may also be key in building an industrial process that can convert plant matter into low-cost plastics that are renewable and biodegradable.

A team of researchers with the Composite and Nanocomposite Advanced Manufacturing – Biomaterials Center (CNAM), led by David Salem, PhD, at SD Mines believe the Sanford Lab extremophiles hold huge commercial promise.

“The top ten petroleum based polymers make up about a $500 billion global market,” says Salem. “These biopolymers potentially can cover the whole range of properties of those.”

South Dakota’s Research and Commercialization Council (RCC) through the Governor’s Research Center Program has awarded SD Mines CNAM $1.8 million to develop commercially-viable processes for manufacturing these materals.

Tip of the Microbiome

Sani and his team have made multiple trips into the depths of the Sanford Lab in the last decade. Each milligram of mud or water brought back out can yield thousands of microbes. Each trip brings new discoveries and new species and what’s perhaps most exciting are the discoveries yet to come. “We know only about one percent of the microbiome in these areas, 99 percent remains unknown,” says Sani.