Scientists want to engineer bacteria to sustainability mine rare earths – by Valentina Ruiz Leotaud ( – November 21, 2021)

A new study published in Nature Communications describes a proof of principle for engineering a bacterium, Gluconobacter oxydans, that takes a first step towards meeting skyrocketing rare earth element demand in a way that matches the cost and efficiency of traditional thermochemical extraction and refinement methods and is clean enough to meet US environmental standards.

“We’re trying to come up with an environmentally friendly, low-temperature, low-pressure method for getting rare earth elements out of a rock,” Buz Barstow, the paper’s senior author and an assistant professor at Cornell University, said in a media statement.

To meet US annual needs for rare earth elements, roughly 71.5 million tonnes of raw ore would be required to extract 10,000 kilograms of elements.

Current methods rely on dissolving rock with hot sulphuric acid, followed by using organic solvents to separate very similar individual elements from each other in a solution. “We want to figure out a way to make a bug that does that job better,” Barstow said.

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