International research team discover unusual iron-rich structures growing from fungi

While Darth Vader is arguably the most famous example from science fiction of man melding with machine, the discovery of life growing on iron remains a rarity in the real world.

An international research team, including award-winning biogeochemist Neil Banerjee from Western University, has discovered and now characterized unusual iron-rich shelled “structures” produced by fungi inhabiting abandoned mines in the Pyrenees, a range of mountains in southwest Europe that forms a natural border between France and Spain.

The findings were published recently in Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences.

According to the study, the structures are formed by the mineralization (the process through which an organic substance becomes impregnated by inorganic substances) of iron and zinc oxides and a rare form of goethite, known commonly as brown iron ore.

The resulting needle-like, uniform-sized crystals grow laterally or vertically from naturally occurring fungi common to northern Spain, creating a complex, bio-metallic construction.

“The unusual iron-rich shelled structures that we’ve discovered may provide clues to the unique adaptive advantages of such structures for the microbial communities that produce them,” says Banerjee, an associate professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at Western’s Faculty of Science. “We believe that these unique microbe-mineral systems may have not only provided a stable environment for them to grow but also protected them from predation.”

Banerjee notes that the Pyrenees mines were abandoned approximately 40 years ago so the rapid emergence of these structures demonstrates an incredible capacity of this particular ecosystem for adaptation and innovation, particularly in areas of an environment altered by human activity.

The international research team was led by Dr. David Fernández Remolar, who was a Visiting University Scholar at Western in 2012 and is currently at the British Geological Survey, and former Western PhD student and Postdoctoral Scholar Matt Izawa who is now at the Royal Ontario Museum. The team also included scientists from the National Institute for Aerospace Technology (Spain), the Autonomous University of Madrid (Spain), King Juan Carlos University (Spain), the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (Spain), and the Complutense University of Madrid (Spain).

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