Can germs do what alchemists can't? Maybe so. Researchers at Michigan State University have found a way to coax bacteria to turn a toxic, liquid chemical found in nature into 24-karat gold.
Kazem Kashefi, an assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at the university, and his colleague Adam Brown, associate professor of electronic art and intermedia, created the precious metal with the help of the metal-tolerant bacterium Cupriavidus metallidurans, a "Superman-strength" strain that can withstand the intense toxicity of gold chloride.
C. metallidurans transforms the chemical toxins into a valuable nugget, PSFK.com reported.
“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.
The formidable bacterium has been studied in the past, Medical Daily noted, but primarily in the context of helping understand the ecological effects of heavy metals like mercury, cadmium, lead, and chromium.
The professors used their discovery to create an art installation called “The Great Work of the Metal Lover,” which was awarded honorary mention at this year's Prix Ars Electronica.
“This is neo-alchemy. Every part, every detail of the project is a cross between modern microbiology and alchemy,” Brown said in a written statement. “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.”
On his website, Brown explained the significance behind the experimental installation's name.
Historically, Magnum Opus, or The Great Work, was an alchemical process that incorporated a personal, spiritual and chemical method for creating the Philosopher’s Stone, a mysterious red colored substance that was capable of transmuting base matter into the noble metal of gold. Discovering the principals of the Philosopher’s Stone was one of the defining and at the same time seemingly unobtainable objectives of Western alchemy.