Scientists find Bacteria that make GoldAlchemy. The lost art of trying (and failing) to turn mundane elements into gold through the application of science. These days, we can do it with a supercollider. Anything short of that, however, just won't cut it.
“The Great Work of the Metal Lover” by Adam Brown, MSU associate professor of electronic art and intermedia. Photo by G.L. Kohuth.
So you can imagine my surprise on learning that a bacteria has just been found that makes gold. Pure gold. Of course, it does make it from gold chloride, a compound found readily in nature (well, compared to gold, at least), so there is still gold in the equation. It's a bit more like splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen than magic. But still.
Gold flecks produced by the art-science experiment. Photo by G.L. Kohuth.
This work of wizardry comes thanks to the industrious team of Kazem Kashefi and Adam Brown at Michigan State University. The duo made a small laboratory setup involving beakers and tubing and the bacteria Cupriavidus metallidurans to transmute a nigh-worthless compound into a highly valued substance.
Beyond excreting gold, however, the bacteria is interesting in its own right. Cupriavidus metallidurans belongs to a class of organisms known as extremophiles, things that can live in conditions that would kill almost anything else. For some that means lakes boiling so hot that most chemistry fails to take place. For others it means living without key building blocks--remember that arsenic life announced a couple of years ago? It was believed that it could live without phosphorous, which all known biology needs. These are the types of things that extremophiles deal with. For Cupriavidus metallidurans, though, it is surviving an incredibly toxic substance that would normally kill bacteria--gold chloride. In fact, they found it to be 25 times more resilient than they were expecting. Within a week of living in the gold chloride, the entire mixture can be processed into something perceived valuable.
There is one problem, however: gold chloride isn't currently gathered from nature. Whenever it is called for--which is rarely--it is manufactured. From gold. Meaning that it is already more expensive to buy than gold is.
Still, though, this is an interesting achievement. And if large quantities of gold chloride are found and mines, well, we could be in a post-scarcity situation with gold.