Friday, 31 August 2007

Cancer cure from pool of death?

"Berkeley Pit Lake is about a mile long and half again as wide, rimmed by naked rock walls that gleam white under the sun of big-sky country. The water is oxblood red at the surface, stained by manganese and iron; deeper down, heavy copper compounds turn it the color of limeade. It will burn your eyes, stain your clothes, and desiccate your skin. If you drink it, it will corrode your gullet before it poisons you. A dozen years ago, 342 snow geese made the mistake of overnighting at the lake. They were dead the next morning.

...This used to be a copper mine. For more than a century, workers pulled ore from the ground here. Then, in 1982, the Anaconda Mining Company shut down Berkeley Pit and turned off the pumps that kept out the groundwater. The 3,900-foot-deep hole began to fill up — 7.2 million gallons a day at first, flowing in from aquifers and from 10,000 miles of abandoned mine shafts, stopes, and tunnels beneath the city of Butte. The water is still rushing in today.

The effects have been catastrophic. Pyrite minerals in the rock oxidized in the water, transforming the pit into a giant cauldron of dilute battery acid spiked with metals. Today, Berkeley Pit contains 37 billion gallons of contaminated water and is part of the biggest contiguous Superfund site in the US, stretching 120 miles from Butte to just outside Missoula.

Berkeley Pit, it turns out, isn't entirely sterile. The Stierles have identified more than 100 types of microbes in the lake — bacteria, algae, and fungi that manage to survive in the unique, noxious ecosystem. Natural selection has had its way with many of them — some of these organisms apparently live nowhere else on Earth.

Their first big hit, berkeleydione, came from a Penicillium species they found in a pit-water sample in 1998. It inhibited the growth of non-small cell lung cancer. That gave them enough credibility to keep at it. Then, in 2002, they found a Penicillium species that, like berkeleydione, was unique to Berkeley Pit. A compound it made worked against the enzymes in their assay kit and in the NCI 60-cell assay, where an extract from the stuff attacked cells from OVCAR-3, an ovarian cancer. "With the first compound, the reaction was like, ‘Well, OK, that's interesting,'" Andrea says. "But when we did it again, it was, ‘Wow! Maybe there's more to these pit microbes than we thought.'" Don and Andrea named the extract berkelic acid.

Read full article at Wired.

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