Bugs strike gold

12.08.02: THERE IS a goldrush in the Welsh hills ­ but not a prospector in sight. The new miners are tiny ­ millions to the square inch ­ and they are pouring down long-abandoned mines to harvest the precious ore their human predecessors left behind.

'Mines never run out of ore,' says Peter Buxton of NanoProspecting, 'they just become uneconomic. But once you start using bacteria to separate ore from rock, the economics look quite different.'

NanoProspecting has vats of genetically engineered bacteria that can break down the rock containing the ore. The residue is then pumped out with high-pressure hoses and treated chemically. This year Buxton hopes to recover half a ton of gold.

The Welsh mining venture is just one of many projects that harness the power of genetically engineered bacteria, which are fast becoming the new workhorses of industry.

The Metropolitan police now uses bullet-proof vests made from the same material as spiders' webs. Strong and light, the vests are woven from thread produced by bacteria that have been given the spider's silk-making gene.

An even hardier bug, engineered to munch its way through radioactive metals, is to be put to work on the enormous waste disposal problem at Sellafield nuclear power plant. They call it Conan the Bacterium. JB