Application of Genomics to Mineral Exploration

Project code: 2016-025

Project type: Minerals and Mining

Proponent: Peter Winterburn and Sean Crowe, University of British Columbia (MDRU)

Project location: Vancouver Island and Central British Columbia


Summary
Can genomic sequencing be used to determine if the quantity and species of bacteria over an ore body can accurately indicate what lies beneath the ground?

The Need
Accurately identifying what may lie deep beneath the surface is an ongoing challenge in British Columbia and beyond. Specifically in British Columbia, a layer of variable thickness glacial sediments, largely unrelated to the rock types underneath, known as 'exotic overburden' cover large parts of the province.

Geochemical techniques are often used to analyze samples of this material to 'zoom in' on potential location of mineral deposits deep below the surface. Most techniques can identify areas of increased potential, but are unable to pinpoint exactly where the deposit lies.

As the field of genomics develops rapidly, innovative new application of genomic sequencing techniques may increase the accuracy and speed of work -- potentially changing the way mineral exploration work is done.

Commenting on the project, project lead Peter Winterburn said "A gram of fertile soil typically hosts more than 1 billion microbial cells with tens or even hundreds of thousands of bacterial species, each interacting with the environment. Together, they are largely responsible for the processing of nutrients and carbon in the soil, regulating the decomposition of mineral and waste materials and the regeneration of soil fertility. Bacteria are very sensitive and responsive to chemical and physical changes in their environment. Subtle changes in metal availability can have a dramatic impact on microbial communities and their levels of activity."

Project Goals
Application of Genomics to Mineral Exploration aims to determine if the quantity and species of bacteria varies when directly over an ore body. Specifically, this proof-of-concept study is using samples collected over three known mineral deposits in British Columbia to determine:

  • The viability of applying next-generation genomic sequencing to mineral exploration as a routine method in areas of till cover
  • The robustness of molecular microbial fingerprints to reveal changes when close to mineral deposits
  • The degree of variability of the background
  • The relationship between microbial community composition and soil type, texture, organic and in-organic chemistry, and physiochemical properties

Project Benefits
This project is unique, and so has the potential to result in new made-in-BC techniques that could be commercialized and used around the world.

Reliable and cost efficient mineral exploration tools help to make informed decisions about land use and guide future mineral exploration work and investment.

Survey Area
Soil samples for this project were collected from;

How was the data collected?
Soil-forming processes give rise to distinct soil horizons. In this project the Bh horizon, which is made of accumulated organic matter, was sampled. Care was taken to avoid contamination, so the samples were sieved through a -žinch screen on site and sealed in double plastic bags, then maintained in a refrigerated environment and frozen on return to The University of British Columbia.

Next, the samples will be submitted for genomic testing. Genomics combines biology, genetics and computer science to provide an in-depth look at the DNA of all living things. The collected samples contain billions of microbial cells and hundreds of thousands of bacteria species. Since the human genome was sequenced in 2003, genomic sequencing technology has become significantly faster and cheaper as technology has improved. This includes the fast processing of terabytes of data.

Today, high-throughput next generation sequencing technologies mean researchers can profile the diversity and activity of the thousands of microbe species in soils to identify the reliable indicators needed to apply the technique to mineral exploration more widely.

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