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Keywords:

  • biotransformation;
  • ecology;
  • microbial diversity;
  • uranium tailings

Abstract

Aims

To describe the diversity and metabolic potential of microbial communities in uranium mine tailings characterized by high pH, high metal concentration and low permeability.

Methods and Results

To assess microbial diversity and their potential to influence the geochemistry of uranium mine tailings using aerobic and anaerobic culture-based methods, in conjunction with next generation sequencing and clone library sequencing targeting two universal bacterial markers (the 16S rRNA and cpn60 genes). Growth assays revealed that 69% of the 59 distinct culturable isolates evaluated were multiple-metal resistant, with 15% exhibiting dual-metal hypertolerance. There was a moderately positive correlation coefficient (R = 0·43, < 0·05) between multiple-metal resistance of the isolates and their enzyme expression profile. Of the isolates tested, 17 reduced amorphous iron, 22 reduced molybdate and seven oxidized arsenite. Based on next generation sequencing, tailings depth was shown to influence bacterial community composition, with the difference in the microbial diversity of the upper (0–20 m) and middle (20–40 m) tailings zones being highly significant (< 0·01) from the lower zone (40–60 m) and the difference in diversity of the upper and middle tailings zone being significant (< 0·05). Phylotypes closely related to well-known sulfate-reducing and iron-reducing bacteria were identified with low abundance, yet relatively high diversity.

Conclusions

The presence of a population of metabolically-diverse, metal-resistant micro-organisms within the tailings environment, along with their demonstrated capacity for transforming metal elements, suggests that these organisms have the potential to influence the long-term geochemistry of the tailings.

Significance and Impact of the study

This study is the first investigation of the diversity and functional potential of micro-organisms present in low permeability, high pH uranium mine tailings.