Scientists just used bacteria to finally make alchemy a real thing

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Dec 17, 2012

There was a time, centuries ago, when people poured lifetimes of research and hard work into attempting to create gold. This "science," known as alchemy, has long been discredited, but two Michigan State University professors, using a "Superman" bacteria and a little time, have just managed to make it a real thing.

The work is a collaboration between associate professor of electronic art and intermedia Adam Brown and assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics Kazem Kashefi. Backed by Kashefi's science, Brown used the gold-creating process as the basis for an art installation called "The Great Work of the Metal Lover."

"This is neo-alchemy. Every part, every detail of the project is a cross between modern microbiology and alchemy," Brown wrote. "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."

The installation has received acclaim for its themes and its execution, but what's really fascinating is the science. It's not so much gold creation as it is gold mutation using an extremely resilient bacteria known as Cupriavidus metallidurans, which not only survives when exposed to toxic metals, but thrives.

With this "Superman-strength" bacteria in their corner, Kashefi and Brown created a controlled bioreactor environment, placed the bacteria inside, and then introduced highly toxic gold chloride, or "liquid gold." With nothing else to feed on in the containment of the bioreactor, the C. metallidurans material chowed down on the gold chloride. A week later, usable, real nuggets of 24-karat gold were produced.

"Microbial alchemy is what we're doing--transforming gold from something that has no value into a solid, precious metal that's valuable," Kashefi said.

Now, this doesn't mean these guys have given us all a gold machine, because this kind of thing would be ridiculously expensive to do on a large scale. But what they have done is prove not only that alchemists might have been onto something, but that some of the gold found in nature might have been created not by time and pressure, but by microbes.

Check out this short video for more information on the artistic side of "The Great Work of the Metal Lover."

(Via Huffington Post)