<p>Beneath this lake in Butte, Montana, there have been some surprising discoveries.</p>
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Beneath this lake in Butte, Montana, there have been some surprising discoveries.

Life finds a way

In Butte, Montana, this former mine is now home to billions of litres of toxic water. What lies beneath, however, is all the more interesting.

The harshest environments can sometimes be home to the biggest surprises. Even at Earth’s extremities, it’s possible to find communities thriving. Whether that’s in the form of the Arctic fox, which doesn’t start to shiver until temperatures drop to a staggering minus 70 degrees Celsius, or the nomadic humans living in the Sahara Desert, there are few places on Earth where some sort of life form won’t survive, and even thrive.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that a toxic lake might be one of those places devoid of life entirely, but in the case of Berkeley Pit you’d be mistaken.

This former open-pit mine in Butte, Montana, is now a man-made lake, 1.6 kilometres long and 800 metres wide, that contains more than 150 billion litres of toxic water. The water is heavily acidic and has taken on an almost blood-red colour from the copper and iron deposits. However, this hostile environment is also home to new species of fungi that could lead to important advances in modern medicine.

Two researchers from the University of Montana have been studying the environment in Berkeley Pit, testing the life forms known as extremophiles in several different settings, mainly to see how their qualities that allowed them to adapt to this toxic water could be utilized in different ways.

Don and Andrea Stierle, both PhDs and research professors, have been studying the organisms and environment in Berkeley Pit for many years now, and the couple have made some interesting, potentially groundbreaking discoveries.

Among the first of these was the identification of a fungus that showed signs of being able to fight cancerous cells, which they found in a water sample back in 1998. As it was an entirely new species, it was given the name berkeleydione. Soon after, they found another unique species, which again produced a compound that attacked cancer. The only reason their work has not become more widespread is that they don’t have the facilities to do their experiments on a larger scale, and to find out whether these compounds and extracts would be safe to use on humans.

The experiments didn’t stop there. Recently they discovered an entirely new antibiotic, berkeleylactone A, which works in a different way to the ones we use today. In a time when both people and pathogens are becoming ever more resistant to existing antibiotics, this could be the huge leap needed to help humans fight off infections in the future. Again, it will be a long time before this can potentially form the basis of medications, as more testing and investment are required, but it’s an exciting development.

The mine, which produced 320 million tonnes of ore and at its peak provided a third of the copper used in the United States, is now a little-known tourist attraction that costs 2 US dollars to enter. To the naked eye it’s a huge man-made lake with crimson water contrasting against sandy pit walls, and occasionally clear blue skies, which can make for beautiful and haunting vistas in equal measure.

Just as when the mine was operational, though, it’s beneath the surface where the real magic is happening. Deep in this toxic body of water, adaptive and potentially revolutionary life forms are thriving. Life always finds a way.