Should mining companies be employing fruit flies?
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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, intends to answer. Merritt hopes to find a way to mitigate the damage caused by acid mine drainage – when water is mixed with rock waste from mines, forming pools that allow microbes to interact with mineral-rich water and create acid.

“The puzzle itself is relatively simple. There are only a dozen or so dominant microbes that are creating the damage,” 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 and his team can study 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.

“The cost of acid mine drainage is billions of dollars globally,” says Merritt. “But through understanding the microbes, we will be able to prevent and mediate 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.

“We don’t genetically engineer humans, but we do fruit flies, and 60 to 80 percent of human genes are found in flies,” he says. “If we can engineer it, we can test it. And if we can test it, we can begin to understand it – and maybe fix it.”

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

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