Microbial Alchemy: A Modern Day Gold Rush

Photo credit by G.L. Kohuth, Michigan State University. From Press Release.

I have always been fascinated by the relationship between science and art. In 2010, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Paris, France through Michigan State University. I was finishing up the lab portion of a molecular biology course and the theme of the semester was the intersection of art and science. Specifically, my professor wanted us to examine art through science or alternatively, use art as a medium through which to conduct a scientific experiment. The experience emphasized my passion in the intersection of these two different worlds.

Yesterday, I was surfing the internet getting my fill of science-y related news when I stumbled upon a press-release on Eurekalert! (love that site) that literally made me jump up in surprise, shock, and excitement.

The headline read: “Superman-strength bacteria produce gold”

Dr. Kazem Kashefi, a researcher at Michigan State University, has determined that the bacterium Cupriavidus metallidurans can digest the toxic chemical compound gold (III) tetrachloride into 24-karat gold nuggets.

In conjunction with Adam Brown, an associate professor of electronic art and media, they created “The Great Work of the Metal Lover.” It is the quintessential art and science piece. This installation is a portable laboratory that creates gold in front of your eyes by using gold-plated hardware, a bioreactor, and cultures of the bacteria. You’d probably have to watch it for a long time though, because the process takes about a week.

Brown also created images of the bacteria in action using scanning electron microscopy. He incorporated gold leaf made from the bacteria onto the images in areas where the gold deposits could be seen. How Meta.

A commentary on the ethics related to the scientific manipulation of nature, the installation received an honorable mention and is currently being displayed at Prix Ars Electronica, a cyber-art competition held in Austria.

It’s a cool concept, but why does this matter? Why should we care?

Dubbed “microbial alchemy” by Kashefi, C. metallidurans turns worthless compounds into something of substantial value. One blog post called it the “Rumplestiltskin” of microbes.

It would be cost-prohibitive to adapt the experiment to produce gold on a large scale, but could this metal-loving bacterium have applications outside the laboratory?

Bio-mining is an emerging field in biotechnology. It uses microbes to extract precious metals from their ores. As far as I know, C. metallidurans has not been used in this process, but now has the potential to be.

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