Minnesota's Legacy

Science and Innovation from Soudan Underground Mine State Park

Project Details by Fiscal Year
2011 Fiscal Year Funding Amount
Fund Source
Environment & Natural Resources Trust Fund
U of MN
Recipient Type
Public College/University
Start Date
July 2010
End Date
June 2013
Activity Type
Counties Affected
Legal Citation / Subdivision
M.L. 2010, Chp. 362, Sec. 2, Subd. 03f
Appropriation Language

$545,000 is from the trust fund to the Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota to characterize unique microbes discovered in the Soudan Underground Mine State Park and investigate the potential application in bioenergy and bioremediation. This appropriation is available until June 30, 2013, by which time the project must be completed and final products delivered.

2011 Fiscal Year Funding Amount
Proposed Measurable Outcome(s)

Click on "Final Report" under "Project Details".

Measurable Outcome(s)

Click on "Final Report" under "Project Details".

Project Overview

The Soudan Iron Mine near Ely, Minnesota is no longer an active mine and is now part of a state park, as well as the home to a state-of-the-art physics laboratory at the bottom of the mine. The mine has also recently been discovered to contain an extreme environment in the form of an ancient and very salty brine bubbling up from deep below the Earth's surface through holes drilled when the mine was active. Strange microorganisms - part of an ecosystem never before characterized by science - have been found living in the brine. Scientists from the University of Minnesota will use this appropriation to:

  • Study this unique ecosystem and its organisms;
  • Examine the potential of using the microorganisms for applications in medicine, energy production, and other areas;
  • Develop a program to educate mine visitors about the brine ecosystem and its organisms.

The Soudan Iron Mine near Ely, MN is home to an extreme environment where microorganisms are thriving 2300 feet below the surface in an ancient, salty brine. Though mining operations have been closed for almost 50 years, the mine is now a State Park managed by Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources. Visitors can tour the mine, learning about the history of mining at Soudan and can also tour the state-of-the-art physics laboratory built at the bottom of the mine. Just a few hundred feet away from the physics laboratory, bubbling up from holes drilled in the last days of iron mining, is strange water - an incredibly salty brine that lacks any oxygen gas - and strange microorganisms (bacteria and other single-celled microbes) living in the water. Our work has resulted in the characterization of the level 27 brine with respect to its chemical makeup, the rate that the brine mixes with surface water, cultured and uncultured microbial communities living in the brine, and speciation of minerals found in the brine channel. We have also specifically cultured about two dozen microorganisms from the mine that produce potent anti-fungal compounds, several of which have been shown to have activity against fungal pathogens. We have also isolated several novel species of iron oxidizing and iron reducing bacteria, which we continue to characterize. Finally, we developed an interactive touchscreen display and presentation about subsurface microbiology and geochemistry, specifically highlighting our work from this project. The goal of this touchscreen display is to both educate citizens of Minnesota broadly about subsurface microbiology and highlight some of the most exciting results from our project in a way that is broadly accessible to non-scientists.

Findings from this project formed the basis for a follow-up project begun in 2013 - "Harnessing Soudan Mine Microbes: Bioremediation, Bioenergy, and Biocontrol" - that is to exploring potential applications of using the microorganisms living in Soudan Iron Mine for removing metals from mine waters, producing biofuels, and developing a biocontrol for White-Nose Syndrome, which is decimating bat populations around the country.

Project results have been disseminated through presentations made by students and investigators supported on this project. Co-Investigator Prof. Brandy Toner has presented research from our project at an international meeting in 2011 (Goldschmidt Conference, Prague, Czech Republic) and at a national meeting in 2012 (American Geophysical Union, San Francisco, CA). Prof. Jeff Gralnick presented some of the work supported by this project at the TEDxUMN 2012 event, students working on this project gave several poster presentations at national and local meetings (2 presentations in 2012, 4 presentations in 2013). Two scientific publications are currently in preparation (first authors Lindsey Briscoe from the Toner Lab and Benjamin Bonis from the Gralnick Lab) and one has been published in the open access journal of the American Society of Microbiology mBio (Summers, ZM, JA Gralnick and DR Bond. 2013. mBio. Cultivation of an obligate Fe(II)-oxidizing lithoautotrophic bacterium using electrodes. Jan 29;4(1)e00420-12.). Our project was also featured by several media outlets including the Northland's Newscenter, WCCO Channel 4 in the Twin Cities, MoBio's blog, and the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences.

Our specific outreach component for this project was to purchase, design and implement an interactive touch screen display for the Visitor's Center at the Soudan Underground Mine State Park. We purchased the equipment (computer, 42 inch touch screen display, mounting bracket, security cables) and have finished the first presentation featuring work from this project. The installation will take place before the mine reopens for visitors for the 2014 season.

Project Details
Project Manager
First Name
Last Name
Organization Name
U of MN
Street Address
1479 Gortner Ave
St. Paul
Zip Code
(612) 626-6496