Gold.....just the name evokes images of grandeur. We are reminded of the ancient Egyptians, of the Ark of the Covenant, of the medieval philosopher's stone, of Tycho Brahe's golden nose. Every high school history textbook has mentioned that Gold, God, and Glory spurred expansion to the New World. There are tales of the Incan gold, of buccaneers and corsairs burying their booty on some forgotten isle, of endless searches for mysterious cities of gold, and of gold fever in the Old West. And, every treasure hunter has scoured the web for legends regarding lost treasures of gold-----whether from 1800s bandits absconding with Wells Fargo gold, or even old-time prospectors (like Clementine's father, or the Old Dutchman's mine in Arizona) devising treasure maps to their hidden mines. Let's face it: gold has always fascinated us.
Assistant Professor (of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics) Kazem Kashefi and Associate Professor (of Electronic Art and Intermedia) Adam Brown have shared that Cupriavidus metalliduran, an extremophile for its capability of thriving in toxic concentrations of auric chloride (a toxic compound found in nature that is often nicknamed 'liquid gold'), can in turn metabolize the toxins to produce 24-karat gold!
Kashefi explains: "Microbial alchemy is what we’re doing – transforming gold from something that has no value into a solid, precious metal that’s valuable."
Unfortunately, the process has been described as "cost-prohibitive," which is why both Kashefi and Brown have teamed up to showcase their research through art. Michigan State University has reported that "'The Great Work of the Metal Lover'...uses a combination of biotechnology, art and alchemy to turn liquid gold into 24-karat gold. The artwork contains a portable laboratory made of 24-karat gold-plated hardware, a glass bio-reactor and the bacteria, a combination that produces gold in front of an audience."
And how did this first come about? The duo are said to have "fed the bacteria unprecedented amounts of gold chloride, mimicking the process they believe happens in nature. In about a week, the bacteria transformed the toxins and produced a gold nugget."
What is also unique about the duo's work can be further explained by Brown: "“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.”
While the breakthrough is extraordinary for science, the duo's work is also gaining buzz from amongst the artistic crowd, even receiving an honorable mention at a highly regarded cyber art competition, namely Austria's Prix Ars Electronica. Brown is said to have added that "Prix Ars Electronica is one of the most important awards for creativity and pioneering spirit in the field of digital and hybrid media."
Brown continues further: “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."
Meanwhile, all manner of tropes and turns of phrases have been bandied about since the news broke. After all, the bacteria's act of excreting the precious metal seems to have implied that 'gold has hit the fan.' Who knows, maybe this strain of bacteria--now termed the 'Rumpelstiltskin' bacteria (reminiscent of the Brothers Grimm's elf who spins straw into gold)--shall in turn transform the common archetype of Jack-and-the-Beanstalk's egg-laying goose into the gold-laying bacteria. Had visionary author H.G. Wells been alive, he'd more than likely have placed gold-laying bacteria as a new commodity mined in our planet's asteroid belt.