What is genomics?
Genomics is the branch of science associated with studying and mapping genomes, or an organisms’ DNA and corresponding elements such as RNA, proteins and metabolites. At a higher level, it seeks to understand the biological processes that underlie the interaction between organisms and their environment.
How is it applicable in mining?
It sounds niche but there are a surprising number of uses for genomics in mining, many of which are not yet fully understood.
In 2015, SRK published a paper in conjunction with Genome British Columbia and the Ontario Genomics Institute which investigated three applications for genomics within the mining industry: bioleaching of metals and bioremediation, particularly of contaminated mine waters, were identified as the two most commercially promising uses. However, its potential applications are much broader.
Genome Canada has produced a useful fact sheet called “Genomics for energy and mining” which outlines some of these including: recovery of metals and the conversion of residual oil (from oil sands) to value-added compounds or products; accelerated remediation using micro-organisms to treat toxic compounds; in-situ leaching for ageing mineral assets; treatment of acid rock and mine drainage; reduction in greenhouse gases (both the microbes producing methane in tailing ponds and the microbes capable of consuming methane emissions have been identified); and better assessment monitoring and compliance.
Ontario Genomics also hosted a lunch in November 2015 with McEwan Mining. Dr Lesley Warren and Dr Elizabeth Edwards gave an excellent presentation outlining how genomics can be applied within the mining industry and you can watch that here.
How is it being applied?
CIM Magazine ran an interesting interview in May 2017 with Peter Winterburn from the University of British Columbia (UBC). Winterburn and his team were investigating how mineralisation can affect the DNA/RNA of bacteria found in near-surface soils, which could ultimately aid mineral exploration. Winterburn now works with the university’s Mineral Deposit Research Unit and runs short courses on geochemistry for mineral exploration. If you’re interested you can find out more here.
UBC has also been investigating the use of bacteria in the clean-up of oil sands process water. Again, CIM ran an article on the topic which you can find here.
Interestingly, researchers from the Laurentian University, UBC and the University of Toronto did some work in 2017 at the Vale Living With Lakes Centre near Sudbury investigating the treatment of mine tailings using bioremediation – something Vale will be looking to apply in the coming months I expect. The Sudbury Star covered the meeting here.
Genomics also received significant coverage at the CIM conference in Vancouver last May. The event included presentations from Alamos Gold, Stantec, BacTech Environmental and Contango Strategies to name a few companies.
In short, it may be an emerging field but it’s clear that genomics has found its niche within the mining industry and is here to stay.
As SRK noted in the literature review for its 2015 paper listed above, it’s actually rather hard to find good papers and articles covering genomics in mining so if you have any suggestions, do let me know below!