Microbes help identify diamond bearing rock

November 7, 2023
PhD student Bianca Lulianella Phillips prepares soil samples for DNA testing. Image credit: Alex Walls

Within the subarctic tundra of Canada’s Northwest Territories are buried deposits of kimberlite ore, the host rock for diamonds. Yet reaching these deposits that are buried under glacial till tens of meters below the surface is no easy feat. However, the subsurface kimberlite minerals impact the soil environment above them, causing subtle differences in the microbial community at the surface. In their Nature Communications article published last week, Earth Oceans and Atmospheric Science researchers demonstrated how modern advances in sequencing technology can be used to leverage such subtle differences in the microbial communities to detect kimberlite without requiring any initial excavation. 

In their research, Rachel Simister, Bianca Phillips, and Sean Crowe tested the effects of kimberlite additions to soil media in the lab. Their experiments revealed an increase in rare indicator species and overall shifts in microbial community composition associated with the kimberlite-amended soil. The ‘biological fingerprint’ they discovered in the lab was confirmed in the field at known kimberlite formations. Armed with this powerful tool for kimberlite detection, the team took their new technique for a test drive during a blind exploration survey and found their DNA-based surveying technique outperformed traditional geochemical techniques. These findings have the potential to revolutionize the mineral exploration industry, making it more efficient and potentially less destructive. 

Looking forward, this new technique could be applied beyond kimberlite mining. During a UBC media interview, Dr. Crowe, EOAS and M&I professor and Canada Research Chair in Geomicrobiology, said “You could use this technique to find minerals to fuel a green economy. Copper is the most important critical element that we’ll need more of going forward.” 

With such a significant potential impact, this study has made headlines as featured on CBC News, Vancouver CTVNews, Canada News Media, the Vancouver Sun, and Science Daily. You can also read the original article by clicking here