Gold flecks produced by the art-science experiment “The Great Work of the Metal Lover,” by Adam Brown, MSU associate professor of electronic art and intermedia. Photo: G.L. Kohuth.
At a time when the value of gold has reached
an all-time high, Michigan State University researchers have discovered a
bacterium’s ability to withstand incredible amounts of toxicity is key to
creating 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,” says Kazem Kashefi, assistant professor of microbiology and
He and Adam Brown, associate professor of
electronic art and intermedia, found the metal-tolerant bacteria Cupriavidus metallidurans can grow on
massive concentrations of gold chloride—or liquid gold, a toxic chemical
compound found in nature.
In fact, the bacteria are at least 25 times
stronger than previously reported among scientists, the researchers determined
in their art installation, “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 artwork contains a portable laboratory made of 24-karat gold-plated
hardware, a glass bioreactor and the bacteria, a combination that produces gold
in front of an audience.
Brown and Kashefi 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
“The Great Work of the Metal Lover” uses a
living system as a vehicle for artistic exploration, Brown says.
In addition, the artwork consists of a series
of images made with a scanning electron microscope. Using ancient gold
illumination techniques, Brown applied 24-karat gold leaf to regions of the
prints where a bacterial gold deposit had been identified so that each print
contains some of the gold produced in the bioreactor.
“This is neo-alchemy. Every part, every
detail of the project is a cross between modern microbiology and alchemy,”
Brown says. “Science tries to explain the phenomenological world. As an artist,
I’m trying to create a phenomenon. Art has the ability to push scientific
It would be cost prohibitive to reproduce
their experiment on a larger scale, he says. But 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.
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 says.
Source: Michigan State University