Through the wonders of microbial alchemy, researchers have discovered a bacterium that can create solid 24-karat gold. The bacteria Cupriavidus metallidurans, has shown it can withstand the incredible toxicity of gold chloride, a chemical compound found in nature that's also known as liquid gold. Not only can the bacteria withstand it, they can make it precious.
The twist to this story is that there doesn't appear to be a new gold rush on our hands. The Michigan State University researchers behind the discovery are combining the scientific research with art to show off the process as an art installation. Kazem Kashefi, assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics, and Adam Brown, associate professor of electronic art and intermedia, have created a portable laboratory (pictured below) that uses the bacterium and liquid gold to create 24-karat gold in front of audiences.
Using a glass bioreactor, the duo feeds the bacteria — which they discovered is 25 times stronger than previously thought — to large amounts of the toxic gold chloride. In a week's time, the bacteria have transformed the toxins into a gold nugget. They believe the process is similar to what happens in nature — only faster, thanks to the super-charged bacteria.
The duo calls the odd mashup of biotechnology, art and alchemy "The Great Work of the Metal Lover." In a statement, Professor Brown explains:
"This is neo-alchemy. Every part, every detail of the project is a cross between modern microbiology and alchemy
Science tries to explain the phenomenological world. As an artist, I'm trying to create a phenomenon. Art has the ability to push scientific inquiry."
No doubt everyone who hears about the discovery of the gold-producing bacterium is wondering just when we are opening a giant gold factory. According to the pair, the process is extremely expensive to duplicate on a large scale. Brown seems to have anticipated this response from those learning about the incredible discovery, and believes the art installation should inspire viewers to think about greed, science and ethics.
He states, "[The exhibit should] raise questions about greed, economy and environmental impact, focusing on the ethics related to science and the engineering of nature. Art has the ability to probe and question the impact of science in the world, and 'The Great Work of the Metal Lover' speaks directly to the scientific preoccupation while trying to shape and bend biology to our will within the post biological age."
Others have taken note of the power of the experiment, with "The Great Work of the Metal Lover" being selected for exhibition and the recipient of an honorable mention at Prix Ars Electronica, considered one of the most important awards for demonstrating creativity and pioneering spirit in the field of digital and hybrid media.
Though the message behind the project is fascinating to consider, it seems like a no-brainer that some Dr. Evil type will be trying their hand at throwing the bacteria and liquid gold together in their secret underground lair to see what they come up with.
To know that we can create solid gold out of things that have no intrinsic value on their own seems a little too good to pass up.