Heavy Metal Resistance Strategies of Acidophilic Bacteria and Their Acquisition: Importance for Biomining and Bioremediation
Microbial solubilizing of metals in acid environments is successfully used in industrial bioleaching of ores or biomining to extract metals such as copper, gold, uranium and others. This is done mainly by acidophilic and other microorganisms that mobilize metals and generate acid mine drainage or AMD, causing serious environmental problems. However, bioremediation or removal of the toxic metals from contaminated soils can be achieved by using the specific properties of the acidophilic microorganisms interacting with these elements. These bacteria resist high levels of metals by using a few "canonical" systems such as active efflux or trapping of the metal ions by metal chaperones. Nonetheless, gene duplications, the presence of genomic islands, the existence of additional mechanisms such as passive instruments for pH and cation homeostasis in acidophiles and an inorganic polyphosphate-driven metal resistance mechanism have also been proposed. Horizontal gene transfer in environmental microorganisms present in natural ecosystems is considered to be an important mechanism in their adaptive evolution. This process is carried out by different mobile genetic elements, including genomic islands (GI), which increase the adaptability and versatility of the microorganism. This mini-review also describes the possible role of GIs in metal resistance of some environmental microorganisms of importance in biomining and bioremediation of metal polluted environments such as Thiomonas arsenitoxydans, a moderate acidophilic microorganism, Acidithiobacillus caldus and Acidithiobacillus ferrooxidans strains ATCC 23270 and ATCC 53993, all extreme acidophiles able to tolerate exceptionally high levels of heavy metals. Some of these bacteria contain variable numbers of GIs, most of which code for high numbers of genes related to metal resistance. In some cases there is an apparent correlation between the number of metal resistance genes and the metal tolerance of each of these microorganisms. It is expected that a detailed knowledge of the mechanisms that these environmental microorganisms use to adapt to their harsh niche will help to improve biomining and metal bioremediation in industrial processes.