For years, scientists including the great Sir Isaac Newton have chased the promise of alchemy and tried to discover ways to turn ordinary metal into gold. Well it looks like some researchers in Germany have stumbled on a micro-organism that would have made old Ike Newton just a little jealous.
It seems they’ve discovered a bacterium that can eat copper and poop out gold nuggets!
Here’s the story from IFLScience.com:
“The bacterium in question is called Cupriavidus metallidurans and lives in soil rich in toxic elements. As reported in Metallomics, an international group of researchers have worked out the molecular processes that allow this biological gold deposit. It all has to do with how it deals with copper and gold in the soil.
Both copper and gold are toxic in large quantities, but the bacterium has evolved to need copper to survive. The soil that C. metallidurans live in is rich in toxic heavy metals, which the bacterium converts into a form that is easier to be dealt with. If too much copper is present, the bacterium can activate a special enzyme, called CupA, that can pump out all the excess copper and keep the bacterium healthy.
“Apart from the toxic heavy metals, living conditions in these soils are not bad,” senior author Professor Dietrich H. Nies, a microbiologist at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, said in a statement. “There is enough hydrogen to conserve energy and nearly no competition. If an organism chooses to survive here, it has to find a way to protect itself from these toxic substances.”
However, something peculiar happens when gold is present. Copper gold compounds are extremely toxic, so the bacterium needs to protect itself. To do this, the CupA is made inactive and a different enzyme, CopA, is made active. This transforms the copper and gold compounds into forms that are difficult to absorb.
“This assures that fewer copper and gold compounds enter the cellular interior,” explained Nies. “The bacterium is poisoned less and the enzyme that pumps out the copper can dispose of the excess copper unimpeded. Another consequence: the gold compounds that are difficult to absorb transform in the outer area of the cell into harmless gold nuggets….”
The only downside… the nuggets are only a few nanometers in size.
Still, it does make you wonder what Newton and the other famous alchemists of ages past would have thought of this discovery.