A team of Michigan State University researchers have discovereda bacterium that has the ability to withstand incredible amounts of toxicity to create 24-karat gold. This process, known as microbial alchemy, will help scientists turn a substance of no value into a solid, precious metal.

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The team was led by Kazem Kashefi, assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics. Working along with Adam Brown, associate professor of electronic art and intermedia, the team discovered that the metal-tolerant bacteria Cupriavidus metallidurans can grow on massive concentrations of gold chloride – or liquid gold, a toxic chemical compound found in nature.

According to the research team, the bacteria is at least 25 times stronger than previously reported. They also combined their research with an art installation called “The Great Work of the Metal Lover”, which uses a combination of biotechnology, art and alchemy to turn liquid gold into 24-karat gold. The sculpture contains a portable laboratory, a glass bioreactor and the bacteria, which produce gold in front of an audience.

Brown and Kashefi fed the bacteria unprecedented amounts of gold chloride and within a week the bacteria transformed the toxins into a gold nugget. “This is neo-alchemy. Every part, every detail of the project is a cross between modern microbiology and alchemy,” Brown said. “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.”

It would be extremely expensive to duplicate the process on a larger scale, so instead Brown said that the work should be used to “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 postbiological age,” Brown said.

+ Michigan State University

ViaScience Daily