How fruit flies can help the mining industry

Thomas Merritt, Laurentian University, SNOLab, Sudbury, mining, fruit flies, ecological footprint, environment

Dr. Thomas Merritt

This post is an updated version of an older researcher profile on Laurentian University’s Thomas Merritt.

Can fruit flies and microbes help lessen the damage caused by mining?

That’s a question Thomas Merritt, Canada Research Chair in Genomics and Bioinformatics, is working to answer. Merritt and collaborator Nadia Mykytczuk, NOHFC Industrial Research Chair in Biomining, Bioremediation and Science Communication, are working to find ways to mitigate the damage caused by acid mine drainage—the highly acidic waste water that results from microbes metabolizing the mineral-rich water that drains from exposed rock waste from mines.

“The puzzle itself is relatively simple. At any given time, there may only be a dozen or so dominant microbes that are creating the damage—but what we have recently found is that this set changes throughout the year. It’s a simple system, but a dynamic system that changes season to season,” says the Laurentian University researcher.

Hundreds of years of research into genetic diversity have paved the way for Merritt’s work, which connects genetic diversity, the environment, and biological complexity.

“We are applying what we understand about phenotypes in fruit flies [what makes each fruit fly different] to the microbes that cause acid mine drainage,” he says.

By culturing these microbes in their lab, Merritt, Mykytczuk and their team are studying which strains of microbes interact to trigger the acidified drainage from mines. They use the same research framework applied to fruit flies to study the metabolic networks in microbes.

“Acid mine drainage is one of the mining industry’s biggest environmental problems; with costs in the billions in Canada alone,” says Merritt. “But through understanding the microbes, how they interact and how they literally feed on the rock, we will be able to prevent or minimize and remediate that damage.”

Merritt’s research focuses on knowledge creation—he doesn’t assume the answers to the questions he’s asking, and is prepared to be surprised by what he finds. But he has little doubt that his research will provide unexpected and valuable results.

Beyond answering questions about the causes of acid mine drainage, Merritt hopes his research will also move us closer to realizing our goals of personalized medication and a greater understanding of the genetic underpinnings of human biology. The same tools that his group has developed to study acid mine drainage microbe metabolism are being used to study fundamental metabolism in flies, with straightforward applications in humans.

“Flies and humans are surprisingly similar sharing 60 to 80 percent of their genes and essentially all of their biochemistry and metabolism,” he says. “We don’t genetically engineer humans, but we do fruit flies. If we can engineer a gene, turn it up, turn it down, turn it off, we can test what that does to metabolism, to biology. What we can test, we can begin to understand—and understanding is the first step in fixing something, whether that’s environmental damage or human disease.

“Research into fundamental science is important because it has a direct effect on what we can do in applied science,” says Merritt.

Tagged: Environment & Sustainability, Health & Wellbeing, Natural Resources

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