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Know the West

Life in the dead zone

  BUTTE, Mont. - For years, engineers have assumed that the water inside the Berkeley Pit, an abandoned copper mine on the edge of this hillside town, could not support life; the water has the pH of battery acid. Then a few years ago, a curious analytic chemist, William Chatham, noticed a small clump floating on the water's surface. It turned out to be a protist, a one-celled microorganism.

Since then, biologists and natural products chemists have isolated 42 different kinds of organisms living in the stew, including algae, bacteria, protozoans and fungi. Scientists are currently studying the microbes to see if they can't be used to help mankind in some way - maybe to clean up the pit itself.

"Some organisms may be good candidates for absorbing metals or raising the pH level," says Grant Mitman, a Montana Tech biologist who has identified many of the creatures.

Scientists don't have forever to find a solution for cleaning the pit water. In about 22 years, engineers predict the water level will rise high enough to overflow into the groundwater and begin migrating down the Clark Fork River. Andrea Stierle, a natural products research scientist, is searching the pit for novel sources of anticancer, antifungal and antibacterial agents.

"We're looking at the bright side of the Berkeley Pit," she says.

*Mark Matthews