Berkeley Pit Lake is about a mile long and half again as wide, rimmed by naked rock walls that gleam white under the sun of big-sky country. The water is oxblood red at the surface, stained by manganese and iron; deeper down, heavy copper compounds turn it the color of limeade. It will burn your eyes, stain your clothes, and desiccate your skin. If you drink it, it will corrode your gullet before it poisons you. A dozen years ago, 342 snow geese made the mistake of overnighting at the lake. They were dead the next morning.Here I thought we should be saving the rainforests to protect species that exist no where else and for the potential medical benefits that those species could provide. Now I find out that a toxic waste dump has created its own unique species that could create medicines to fight cancer. Oh the irony.
This used to be a copper mine. For more than a century, workers pulled ore from the ground here. Then, in 1982, the Anaconda Mining Company shut down Berkeley Pit and turned off the pumps that kept out the groundwater. The 3,900-foot-deep hole began to fill up — 7.2 million gallons a day at first, flowing in from aquifers and from 10,000 miles of abandoned mine shafts, stopes, and tunnels beneath the city of Butte. The water is still rushing in today.
Berkeley Pit, it turns out, isn't entirely sterile. The Stierles have identified more than 100 types of microbes in the lake — bacteria, algae, and fungi that manage to survive in the unique, noxious ecosystem. Natural selection has had its way with many of them — some of these organisms apparently live nowhere else on Earth.
And they're more than merely unique — these creatures are also potentially miraculous. They have produced more than 50 different compounds that the Stierles have isolated and tested against enzymes present in diseased human tissue. An extract from a newly discovered species of Penicillium from the lake attacked ovarian cancer cells in lab tests. Another Berkeley Pit Penicillium shows promise in treating lung tumors. Whatever lets these bits of biology thrive in the noxious waters has a side effect: It makes medicine, too.