Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Golden Bacteria?

An amazing breakthrough (!) recently made the rounds on Wired and Gizmodo: a synthetic chemistry / art-house installation in which microbes "...turn liquid gold into 24-karat gold." Two professors from Michigan State University - a microbiologist and a science artist - teamed up to produce the exhibit, entitled "The Great Work of the Metal Lover," which is currently on display at an Austrian art competition.

Credit: G.L. Kohuth | MSU
Hold your applause - the science doesn't travel well across multiple media outlets. The bacterium in question, Cupriavidus metallidurans, reduces gold(III) chloride solution (likely HAuCl4) and precipitates out pure metallic gold. C. metallidurans actually does have some 'super powers' - the last decade (PubMed) shows similar successes with copper, mercury, and lead. Heck, it's even been shot into space

But the MSU press release may win the hyperbole 'gold medal.' Here's a few choice lines:
"Cupriavidus metallidurans can grow on massive concentrations of gold chloride – or liquid gold, a toxic chemical compound found in nature"
Gold chloride, liquid gold? Oh, you mean the solid gold salt? With almost no tox data on the MSDS?  
"[the installation] uses a combination of biotechnology, art and alchemy to turn liquid gold into 24-karat gold"
Ye Gods. No alchemy here! I'm not a biochemist - just a #KnuckleDraggingOrganiker - but I'd guess there's a perfectly reasonable, well-studied reduction mechanism operating. Can I get a reductase over here? (P.S. the only "liquid gold" I know of is molten gold)
“This is neo-alchemy. Every part, every detail of the project is a cross between modern microbiology and alchemy"
No comment (see above). 
"...the researchers’ success in creating gold raises questions about greed, economy and environmental impact, focusing on the ethics related to science and the engineering of nature"
Unless we're talking phlogiston and aether here, there's no "creation" of gold: it's a reduction. And utilizing a bacterium to do what it likes to do anyway hardly sets up an ethical or social inquiry.
"[this work]...speaks directly to the scientific preoccupation while trying to shape and bend biology to our will within the postbiological age"  
I really don't understand what they're trying to say here. (Perhaps I need to read Art for Dummies...)

OK, scientific criticism aside, the work looks pretty neat. How often do you get to see electrochemistry in an art exhibit? In the end, I guess the ends justify the means - if just a few people look at it, and think "I wonder how that works?" it will have served its purpose.


  1. LOL "Superman-strength bacteria produce gold".
    They'd be supermen if they do exactly opposite, converting metallic gold into "liquid" one.

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