Skip to main content Accessibility help

Synthetic geomicrobiology: engineering microbe–mineral interactions for space exploration and settlement

  • Charles S. Cockell (a1)


Synthetic geomicrobiology is a potentially new branch of synthetic biology that seeks to achieve improvements in microbe–mineral interactions for practical applications. In this paper, laboratory and field data are provided on three geomicrobiology challenges in space: (1) soil formation from extraterrestrial regolith by biological rock weathering and/or the use of regolith as life support system feedstock, (2) biological extraction of economically important elements from rocks (biomining) and (3) biological solidification of surfaces and dust control on other planetary surfaces. The use of synthetic or engineered organisms in these three applications is discussed. These three examples are used to extract general common principles that might be applied to the design of organisms used in synthetic geomicrobiology.



Hide All
Adams, D.G. & Carr, N.G. (1981). Heterocyst differentiation and cell division in the cyanobacterium Anabaena cylindrica: effect of high light intensity. J. Cell Sci. 49, 341352.
Barker, W.W. & Banfield, J.F. (1996). Biologically versus inorganically mediated weathering reactions: relationships between minerals and extracellular microbial polymers in lithobiontic communities. Chem. Geol. 132, 5569.
Benzerara, K. & Menguy, N. (2009). Looking for traces of life in minerals. C. R. Palevol. 8, 617628.
Billi, D., Friedmann, E.I., Hofer, K.G., Grilli Caiola, M. & Ocampo-Friedmann, R. (2000). Ionizing radiation resistance in the desiccation-tolerant cyanobacterium Chroococcidiopsis. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 66, 14891492.
Billi, D. & Grilli Caiola, M. (1996a). Effects of nitrogen limitation and starvation on Chroococcidiopsis sp. (Chroococcales). New Phytol. 133, 563571.
Budel, B., Weber, B., Kuhl, M., Pfanz, H., Sultemeyer, D. & Wessels, D. (2004). Reshaping of sandstone surfaces by cryptoendolithic cyanobacteria: bioalkalization causes chemical weathering in arid landscapes. Geobiology 2, 261268.
Busch, M. (2004). Profitable asteroid mining. J. Br. Interplan. Soc. 57, 301305.
Calvaruso, C., Turpault, M. & Frey-Klett, P. (2006). Root-associated bacteria contribute to mineral weathering and to mineral nutrition in trees: a budgeting analysis. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 72, 12581266.
Certini, G. & Scalenghe, R. (2010). Do soils exist outside Earth? Planet. Space Sci. 58, 17671770.
Christensen, P.R., Wyatt, M.B., Glotch, T.D., Rogers, A.D., Anwar, S., Arvidson, R.E., Bandfield, J.L., Blaney, D.L., Budney, C., Clavin, W.M. et al. (2004). Mineralogy at Meridiani Planum from the mini-TES experiment on the Opportunity Rover. Science 306, 17331739.
Clark, C.A. & Norris, P.R. (1996). Oxidation of mineral sulphides by thermophilic microorganisms. Miner. Eng. 9, 11191125.
Cockell, C.S. (2010). Geomicrobiology beyond Earth: microbe–mineral interactions in space settlement and exploration. Trends Microbiol. 18, 304314.
Cockell, C.S., Schuerger, A.C., Billi, D., Friedmann, E.I. & Panitz, C. (2005). Effects of a simulated Martian UV flux on the cyanobacterium, Chroococcidiopsis sp. 029. Astrobiology 5, 127140.
Dahlgren, R., Shoji, S. & Nanzyo, M. (1993). Mineralogical characteristics of volcanic ash soils. In Volcanic Ash Soils Genesis, Properties, and Utilization, ed. Shoji, S. & Nanzyo, M., pp. 101143. Elsevier, Amsterdam.
DeJong, J.T., Fritzges, M.B. & Nüsslein, K. (2006). Microbial induced cementation to control sand response to undrained shear. J. Geotech. Geoenviron. Eng. 132, 13811392.
Deng, M.D. & Coleman, J.R. (1999). Ethanol synthesis by genetic engineering in cyanobacteria. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 65, 523528.
Dong, H. & Yu, B. (2007). Geomicrobiological processes in extreme environments: a review. Episodes 30, 202216.
Erhlich, H.L. & Newman, D.K. (2009). Geomicrobiology. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL.
Gadd, G.M. (2010). Metals, minerals and microbes: geomicrobiology and bioremediation. Microbiology-SGM 156, 609643.
Gislason, S. & Oelkers, E. (2003). The mechanism, rates, and consequences of basaltic glass dissolution. II. An experimental study of the dissolution rates of basaltic glass as a function of pH at temperatures from 6°C to 150°C. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 67, 38173832.
Glowa, K.R., Arocena, J.M. & Massicotte, H.B. (2003). Extraction of potassium and/or magnesium from selected soil minerals by Piloderma. Geomicrobiol. J. 20, 99111.
Greenhagen, B.T., Lucey, P.G., Wyatt, M.B., Glotch, T.D., Allen, C.C., Arnold, J.A., Bandfield, J.L., Bowles, N.E., Hanna, K.L.D., Hayne, P.O. et al. (2010). Global silicate mineralogy of the moon from the Diviner Lunar Radiometer. Science 329, 15071509.
Gronstal, A.L., Pearson, V., Kappler, A., Anand, M., Poitrasson, F., Kee, T.P. & Cockell, C.S. (2009). Laboratory experiments on the weathering of iron meteorites and carbonaceous chondrites by iron-oxidising bacteria. Meteorit. Planet. Sci. 44, 233248.
Gudbrandsson, S., Wolff-Boenisch, D., Gislason, S.R. & Oeklers, E.H. (2008). Dissolution rates of crystalline basalt at pH 4 and 10 and 25–75°C. Miner. Mag. 72, 155158.
Hendrickx, L. & Mergeay, M. (2007). From the deep sea to the stars: human life support through minimal communities. Curr. Opin. Microbiol. 10, 231237.
Holmes, D.S., Cardenas, J.P., Valdes, J., Quatrini, R., Esparza, M., Osorio, H., Duarte, F., Lefimil, C. & Jedlicki, E. (2009). Comparative genomics begins to unravel the ecophysiology of bioleaching. Biohydrometall. Adv. Mater. Res. 71–73, 143150.
Hu, C.X., Liu, Y.D., Zhang, D.L., Huang, Z.B. & Paulsen, B.S. (2002). Cementing mechanism of algal crusts from desert area. Chin. Sci. Bull. 47, 13611368.
Janssen, P.J., Morin, N., Mergeay, M., Leroy, B., Wattiez, R., Vallaeys, T., Waleron, K., Waleron, M., Wilmotte, A., Quillardet, P. et al. (2010). Genome sequence of the edible cyanobacterium Arthrospira sp. PCC 8005. J. Bacteriol. 192, 24652466.
Kahre, M.A., Murphy, J.R. & Haberle, R.M. (2006). Modeling the Martian dust cycle and surface dust reservoirs with the NASA Ames general circulation model. J. Geophys. Res. 111, E06008.
Kappler, A. & Newman, D.K. (2004). Formation of Fe(III)-minerals by Fe(II)-oxidizing photoautotrophic bacteria. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 68, 12171226.
Knauss, K.G., Nguyen, S.N. & Weed, H.C. (1993). Diopside dissolution kinetics as a function of pH, CO2, temperature, and time. Cosmochim. Geochim. Acta 57, 285294.
Konhauser, K. (2007). An Introduction to Geomicrobiology. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.
Kryzanowski, T. & Mardon, A. (1990). Mining potential of asteroid belt. Can. Min. J. 111, 43.
Lee, L.H. (1995). Adhesion and cohesion mechanisms of lunar dust on the Moon's surface. J. Adhes. Sci. Technol. 9, 11031124.
Lehto, K., Kanervo, E., Stahle, K., Lehto, H., Tammi, M. & Virtanen, J. (2007). Photosynthetic life support systems in the Martian conditions. In ROME: Response of Organisms to the Martian Environment, ed. Cockell, C. & Horneck, G., ESA Special Publication, AP-1299. Paris.
Liu, Y.D., Cockell, C.S., Wang, G., Hu, C.X., Chen, L. & De Philippis, R. (2008). Control of Lunar and Martian dust–experimental insights from artificial and natural cyanobacterial and algal crusts in the desert of Inner Mongolia, China. Astrobiology 8, 7586.
McGuire, M.M., Edwards, K.J., Banfield, J.F. & Hamers, R.J. (2001). Kinetics, surface chemistry, and structural evolution of microbially mediated sulphide mineral dissolution. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 65, 12431258.
Metayer-Levrel, G., Castanier, S., Orial, G., Loubiere, J.F. & Perthuisot, J.P. (1999). Applications of bacterial carbonatogenesis to the protection and regeneration of limestones in buildings and historic parsimony. Sediment. Geol. 126, 2534.
Ming, D.W. & Henninger, D.L. (1994). Use of lunar regolith as a substrate for plant growth. Adv. Space Res. 14, 435443.
Miot, J., Benzerara, K., Morin, G., Kappler, A., Bernard, S., Obst, M., Férard, C., Skouri-Panet, F., Guigner, J.-M., Posth, N. et al. (2009b). Iron biomineralization by anaerobic neutrophilic iron-oxidizing bacteria. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 73, 696711.
Norris, P.R., Burton, N.P. & Foulis, N.A.M. (2000). Acidophiles in bioreactor mineral processing. Extremophiles 4, 7176.
Norton, O.R., Ort, K. & Norton, D.S. (1998). Rocks from Space: Meteorites and Meteorite Hunters. Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula, MT.
Oelkers, E.H. & Schott, J. (2001). An experimental study of enstatite dissolution rates as a function of pH, temperature, and aqueous Mg and Si concentration, and the mechanism of pyroxene/pyroxenoid dissolution. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 65, 12191231.
Olsson-Francis, K. & Cockell, C.S. (2010). Use of cyanobacteria for in-situ resource use in space applications. Planet. Space Sci. 58, 12791285.
Olsson-Francis, K., de la Torre, R. & Cockell, C.S. (2010a). Isolation of novel extreme-tolerant cyanobacteria from a coastal rock-dwelling microbial community using exposure to low Earth orbit. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 76, 21152121.
Olsson-Francis, K., Van Houdt, R., Mergeay, M., Leys, N. & Cockell, C.S. (2010b). Micro-array analysis of a microbe–mineral interaction. Geobiology 8, 446456.
Pickard, W.F. (2008). Geochemical constraints on sustainable development: can an advanced global economy achieve long-term stability. Global Planet. Change 61, 285299.
Pronk, J.T. & Johnson, D.B. (1992). Oxidation and reduction of iron by acidophilic bacteria. Geomicrobiol. J. 10, 153171.
Rawlings, D.E. (2005). Characteristics and adaptability of iron- and sulphur-oxidising microorganisms used for the recovery of metals from minerals and their concentrates. Microbial. Cell Factories 4, 115.
Rogers, J.R., Bennett, P.C. & Choi, W.J. (1998). Feldspars as a source of nutrients for microorganisms. Am. Miner. 83, 15321540.
Ruzicka, A., Snyder, G.A. & Taylor, L.A. (2001). Comparative geochemistry of basalts from the moon, earth, HED asteroid, and Mars: implications for the origin of the moon. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 65, 979997.
Sato, Y., Nishihara, H., Yoshida, M., Watanabe, M., Rondal, J.D. & Ohta, H. (2004). Occurrence of hydrogen-oxidizing Ralstonia species as primary microorganisms in the Mt. Pinatubo volcanic mudflow deposits. Soil Sci. Plant Nut. 50, 855861.
Schippers, A., Breuker, A., Blazejak, A., Bosecker, K., Kock, D. & Wright, T.L. (2010). The biogeochemistry and microbiology of sulfidic mine waste and bioleaching dumps and heaps, and novel Fe(II)-oxidizing bacteria. Hydrometallurgy 104, 342350.
Schroeter, A.W. & Sand, W. (1993). Estimations on the degradability of ores and bacterial leaching activity using short time microcalorimetric tests. FEMS Microbiol. Rev. 11, 7986.
Silverman, M.P. & Lundgren, D.G. (1959). Studies on the chemoautotrophic iron bacterium Ferrobacillus ferrooxidans. J. Bacteriol. 77, 642647.
Solisio, C., Lodi, A. & Veglio, F. (2002). Bioleaching of zinc and aluminium from industrial waste sludges by means of Thiobacillus ferrooxidans. Waste Manage. 22, 667675.
Sonter, M.J. (1997). The technical and economic feasibility of mining the near-Earth asteroids. Acta Astronaut. 41, 637647.
Stanliand, S., Coppock, M., Tuffin, M., van Zyl, L., Roychoudhury, A.N. & Cowan, D. (2010). Cobalt uptake and resistance to trace metals in Comamonas testosteroni isolated from a heavy-metal contaminated site in the Zambian copperbelt. Geomicrobiol. J. 27, 656668.
Steen, B. & Borg, G. (2002). An estimation of the cost of sustainable production of metal concentrates from the Earth's crust. Ecol. Econ. 42, 401413.
Stookey, L.L. (1970). Ferrozine – A new spectrophotometric reagent for iron. Ann. Chem. 42, 779781.
Stott, M.B., Sutton, D.C., Watling, H.R. & Franzmann, P.D. (2003). Comparative leaching of chalcopyrite by selected acidophilic bacteria and archaea. Geomicrobiol. J. 20, 215230.
Templeton, A. & Knowles, E. (2009). Microbial transformations of minerals and metals: recent advances in geomicrobiology derives from synchrotron-based X-ray spectroscopy and X-ray microscopy. Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 37, 367391.
Welch, S.A., Taunton, A.E. & Banfield, J.F. (2002). Effect of microorganisms and microbial metabolites on apatite dissolution. Geomicrobiol. J. 19, 343367.
Wogelius, R.A. & Walthier, J.V. (1991). Olivine dissolution at 25°C: effects of pH, CO2 and organic acids. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 55, 943954.
Wolff-Boenisch, D., Gislason, S.R. & Oelkers, E.H. (2006). The effect of crystallinity on dissolution rates and CO2 consumption capacity of silicates. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 70, 858870.
Wu, L., Jacobson, A.D., Chen, H. & Hausner, M. (2007). Characterisation of elemental release during microbe–basalt interactions at T=28°C. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 71, 22242239.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

International Journal of Astrobiology
  • ISSN: 1473-5504
  • EISSN: 1475-3006
  • URL: /core/journals/international-journal-of-astrobiology
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed