Bacteria turn toxins into gold

A metal-tolerant bacterium has been found to be able to convert gold chloride — a toxic chemical compound found in nature — into 24-karat gold.

Microbial alchemy is what we’re doing — transforming gold from something that has no value into a solid, precious metal that’s valuable,” said Kazem Kashefi, an assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at Michigan State University (MSU).

In an art-science experiment called “The Great Work of the Metal Lover,” MSU researchers found the bacterium known as Cupriavidus metallidurans was able to turn toxic gold chloride (or “liquid gold”) into solid 24-karat gold. In fact, the bacteria’s ability proved to be at least 25 times stronger than previously reported: over a week, the bacteria produced a gold nugget from the toxic liquid.

Don’t get up hopes that the procedure could make gold mines out of toxic waste dumps, though. The process would be cost-prohibitive on a larger scale, said Adam Brown, associate professor of electronic art and intermedia at MSU.

However, Brown added, the experiment’s success does raise questions about greed, the economy, environmental impacts and ethics as 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 postbiological age,” Brown said.

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