Analysing The Many Uses Of Biotech Biology Essay

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Bioleaching is a new technique used by the mining industry to extract minerals such as gold and copper from their ores. Traditional extractions involve many expensive steps such as roasting and smelting, which requires sufficient concentrations of elements in ores. Low concentrations are not a problem for bacteria because they simply ignore the waste which surrounds the metals, attaining extraction yields of over 90% in some cases. These microorganisms actually gain energy by breaking down minerals into their constituent elements. The company simply collects the ions out of solution after the bacteria have finished.

Bioleaching involves the use of micro-organisms to extract metals from low grade ores and has been performed successfully on Earth to obtain gold, copper and uranium[2]. About 20% of the world's copper is produced by bioleaching.  This type of process has been used to extract uranium from the Elliott Lake district in northern Ontario, Canada[3].

Bioleaching of nickel, zinc and cobalt can be done with thermophyllic bacteria but has not proven economical; however, on the Moon where resources are sparse and imports comparatively expensive, this may be worthwhile.  Nickel and cobalt are used to alloy steel and zinc is used to alloy magnesium.


The extraction of copper from its ore involves two bacteria, Thiobacillus ferro-oxidans and Thiobacillus thio-oxidans. In stage 1, bacteria catalyse the breakdown of the mineral arsenopyrite (FeAsS) by oxidising the sulfur and metal (in this case arsenic ions) to higher oxidation states whilst reducing dioxygen by H2 and Fe3+. This allows the soluble products to dissolve.

FeAsS(s) -> Fe2+(aq) + As3+(aq) + S6+(aq)

This process actually occurs at the cell membrane of the bacteria. The electrons pass into the cells and are used in biochemical processes to produce energy for the bacteria to reduce oxygen molecules to water.

In stage 2, bacteria then oxidise Fe2+ to Fe3+ (whilst reducing O2).

Fe2+ -> Fe3+

They then oxidise the metal to a higher positive oxidation state. With the electrons gained from that, they reduce Fe3+ to Fe2+ to continue the cycle.

M3+ -> M5+

The gold is now separated from the ore and in solution.

The process for copper is very similar. The mineral chalcopyrite (CuFeS2) follows the two stages of being dissolved and then further oxidised, with copper2+ ions being left.

Extraction from mixture

Copper (Cu2+) ions are removed from the solution by ligand exchange solvent extraction which leaves other ions in the solution. The copper is removed by bonding to a ligand, which is a large molecule consisting of a number of smaller groups each possessing a lone pair. The ligand is dissolved in an organic solvent such as kerosene and shaken with the solution producing this reaction:

Cu2+(aq) + 2LH(organic) -> CuL2(organic) + 2H+(aq)

The ligand donates electrons to the copper, producing a complex - a central metal atom (copper) bonded to 2 molecules of the ligand. Because this complex has no charge, it is no longer attracted to polar water molecules and dissolves in the kerosene, which is then easily separated from the solution. Because the initial reaction is reversible, and therefore not a displacement reaction, it is determined by pH. Adding concentrated acid reverses the equation, and the copper ions go back into an aqueous solution.

Then the copper is passed through an electro-winning process to increase its purity: an electric current is passed through the resulting solution of copper ions. Because copper ions have a 2+ charge, they are attracted to the negative cathodes and collect there.

The copper can also be concentrated and separated by displacing the copper with Fe from scrap iron:

Cu2+(aq) + Fe(s) -> Cu(s) + Fe2+(aq)

The electrons lost by the iron are taken up by the copper. Copper is the oxidising agent (it accepts electrons), and iron is the reducing agent (it loses electrons).

Traces of precious metals such as gold may be left in the original solution. Treating the mixture with sodium cyanide in the presence of free oxygen dissolves the gold. The gold is removed from the solution by adsorbing (taking it up on the surface) to charcoal.


Some advantages associated with bioleaching are:

economical: bioleaching is generally simpler and therefore cheaper to operate and maintain than traditional processes, since fewer specialists are needed to operate complex chemical plants.

environmental: The process is more environmentally friendly than traditional extraction methods. For the company this can translate into profit, since the necessary limiting of sulphur dioxide emissions during smelting is expensive. Less landscape damage occurs, since the bacteria involved grow naturally, and the mine and surrounding area can be left relatively untouched. As the bacteria breed in the conditions of the mine, they are easily cultivated and recycled.


Some disadvantages associated with bioleaching are:

not economical: the bacterial leaching process is very slow compared to smelting. This brings in less profit as well as introducing a significant delay in cash flow for new plants.

not environmental: Toxic chemicals are sometimes produced in the process. Sulfuric acid and H+ ions formed can leak into the ground and surface water turning it acidic, causing environmental damage. Heavy ions such as iron, zinc, and arsenic leak during acid mine drainage. When the pH of this solution rises, as a result of dilution by fresh water, these ions precipitate, forming "Yellow Boy" pollution. For these reasons, setup of bioleaching must be carefully planned, since the process can lead to biosafety failure.

Currently it is more economical to smelt copper ore rather than to use bioleaching, since the concentration of copper in its ore is generally quite high. The profit obtained from the speed and yield of smelting justifies its cost. However, the concentration of gold in its ore is generally very low. The cheaper cost of bacterial leaching in this case outweighs the time it takes to extract the metal.




Electrophoresis is a separations technique that is based on the the mobility of ions in an electric field. Positively charged ions migrate towards a negative electrode and negatively-charged ions migrate toward a positive electrode.For safety reasons one electrode is usually at ground and the other is biased positively or negatively. Ions have different migration rates depending on their total charge, size, and shape, and can therefore be separated.

Gel electrophoresis is a technique used for the separation of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), ribonucleic acid (RNA), or protein molecules using an electric field applied to a gel matrix.[1] DNA Gel electrophoresis is usually performed for analytical purposes, often after amplification of DNA via PCR, but may be used as a preparative technique prior to use of other methods such as mass spectrometry, RFLP, PCR, cloning, DNA sequencing, or Southern blotting for further characterization.


An electrode apparatus consists of a high-voltage supply, electrodes, buffer, and a support for the buffer such as filter paper, cellulose acetate strips, polyacrylamide gel, or a capillary tube. Open capillary tubes are used for many types of samples and the other supports are usually used for biological samples such as protein mixtures or DNA fragments. After a separation is completed the support is stained to visualize the separated components.

Resolution can be greatly improved using isoelectric focusing. In this technique the support gel maintains a pH gradient. As a protein migrates down the gel, it reaches a pH that is equal to its isoelectric point. At this pH the protein is netural and no longer migrates, i.e, it is focused into a sharp band on the gel.

Schematic of zone electrophoresis apparatus


The term "gel" in this instance refers to the matrix used to contain, then separate the target molecules. In most cases, the gel is a crosslinked polymer whose composition and porosity is chosen based on the specific weight and composition of the target to be analyzed. When separating proteins or small nucleic acids (DNA, RNA, or oligonucleotides) the gel is usually composed of different concentrations of acrylamide and a cross-linker, producing different sized mesh networks of polyacrylamide. When separating larger nucleic acids (greater than a few hundred bases), the preferred matrix is purified agarose. In both cases, the gel forms a solid, yet porous matrix. Acrylamide, in contrast to polyacrylamide, is a neurotoxin and must be handled using appropriate safety precautions to avoid poisoning. Agarose is composed of long unbranched chains of uncharged carbohydrate without cross links resulting in a gel with large pores allowing for the separation of macromolecules and macromolecular complexes.

"Electrophoresis" refers to the electromotive force (EMF) that is used to move the molecules through the gel matrix. By placing the molecules in wells in the gel and applying an electric field, the molecules will move through the matrix at different rates, determined largely by their mass when the charge to mass ratio (Z) of all species is uniform, toward the anode if negatively charged or toward the cathode if positively charged.[2]

[edit] Visualization

After the electrophoresis is complete, the molecules in the gel can be stained to make them visible. Ethidium bromide, silver, or coomassie blue dye may be used for this process. Other methods may also be used to visualize the separation of the mixture's components on the gel. If the analyte molecules fluoresce under ultraviolet light, a photograph can be taken of the gel under ultraviolet lighting conditions. If the molecules to be separated contain radioactivity added for visibility, an autoradiogram can be recorded of the gel.

If several mixtures have initially been injected next to each other, they will run parallel in individual lanes. Depending on the number of different molecules, each lane shows separation of the components from the original mixture as one or more distinct bands, one band per component. Incomplete separation of the components can lead to overlapping bands, or to indistinguishable smears representing multiple unresolved components.

Bands in different lanes that end up at the same distance from the top contain molecules that passed through the gel with the same speed, which usually means they are approximately the same size. There are molecular weight size markers available that contain a mixture of molecules of known sizes. If such a marker was run on one lane in the gel parallel to the unknown samples, the bands observed can be compared to those of the unknown in order to determine their size. The distance a band travels is approximately inversely proportional to the logarithm of the size of the molecule.


Gel electrophoresis is used in forensics, molecular biology, genetics, microbiology and biochemistry. The results can be analyzed quantitatively by visualizing the gel with UV light and a gel imaging device. The image is recorded with a computer operated camera, and the intensity of the band or spot of interest is measured and compared against standard or markers loaded on the same gel. The measurement and analysis are mostly done with specialized software.

Depending on the type of analysis being performed, other techniques are often implemented in conjunction with the results of gel electrophoresis, providing a wide range of field-specific applications.

What is gel?

Gel is made up of agarose. Agarose is a polysaccharide extracted from seaweed. It is typically used at concentrations of 0.5 to 2%. The higher the agarose concentration the "stiffer" the gel. Agarose gels are extremely easy to prepare: you simply mix agarose powder with buffer solution, melt it by heating, and pour the gel. It is also non-toxic.

Agarose gels have a large range of separation, but relatively low resolving power. By varying the concentration of agarose, fragments of DNA from about 200 to 50,000 bp can be separated using standard electrophoretic techniques

Movement of Charges