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A Dangerous Hunt for Gold in Brazil


Joël Brugger (left) and Frank Reith (right) looking for gold in organic-acid-rich waters in Minas Gerais.

By Alex Perry

South Australian scientists have negotiated with armed gangs in lawless areas of Brazil in a brave mission to study gold deposition processes there.

Alex Perry is publicist for the South Australian Museum.

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Many people imagine a typical scientist's workplace to be a sterile white laboratory littered with microscopes and specimens, but this hasn’t been the case for some intrepid researchers who have trekked through Brazilian jungles to negotiate with armed and dangerous gangs in the hunt for precious metals.

A team led by Prof Joël Brugger of the South Australian Museum and Dr Frank Reith of the University of Adelaide travelled to the Brazilian mining state of Minas Gerais, about

700 km north of Rio, to take fresh samples of gold from the area in order to preserve biofilms on the surface of the grains. However, collecting material from the diamond and gold fields of Minas Gerais is far from easy – or safe.

“The people live on a few dollars a day, and life is not that valuable,” Brugger says. “We needed access to mine sites so that we could get samples and compare them to other areas, but the sites were controlled by diamond and gold-hunters (garimpeiros).”

The team has been studying gold deposition in Australia and New Zealand, and wanted to compare this with samples taken from the tropical environment in Brazil, in particular how bacteria may interact with the gold. The research could lead to faster and more efficient means of detecting gold in the environment.

The team travelled to the towns of Diamentina and Ouro Preto, and discovered...

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