No Fairy Tale: Tiny Bacteria Spin Gold From Toxic Heavy Metals

A kind of bacteria invisible to the naked eye can not only withstand intense concentrations of heavy metals, it also digests them and releases gold as a byproduct. And now researchers have identified the secret to the bacteria's neat trick

The bacterium C. metallidurans lives in mineral- and heavy metal-rich soils. In order to live off the minerals it has found a way to avoid being poisoned by the heavy metals using a process that creates something called secondary gold. This phenomenon was proven in 2009 research and is now explained in a new study published online in Metallomics.

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Heavy metals are elements that have a relatively high density and many of these, such as ardenis, lead and mercury can cause serious damage to living organisms at high enough exposures. These metals are found naturally in the Earth’s crust.  

In the soil where C. metallidurans lives, the organism often comes into contact with two types of heavy metals, copper and gold. When this occurs, the bacterium converts copper and gold into a form that is easier to absorb.This is because both gold and copper place the bacterium at risk for heavy metal poisoning or metal toxicity. In its metallic form, gold is not toxic, which is why we can eat ice cream with gold flakes. However, some natural gold compounds will break down in the body releasing gold ions, which can have toxic effects on living organisms.

The same goes for copper, but bacteria has another way to get rid of extra copper. This involves using an enzyme called CupA that transforms both gold and copper back to their original not-as-easy-to-absorb forms.

02_02_gold The bacteria is able to "make" gold nuggets. PIOTR HAWALEJ/AFP/Getty Images

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"This assures that fewer copper and gold compounds enter the cellular interior. The bacterium is poisoned less and the enzyme that pumps out the copper can dispose of the excess copper unimpeded,” explained study researcher Dietrich H. Nies in a statement.

As a result of this process, gold compounds inside of the bacteria are transformed into harmless microscopic gold nuggets. The team hope to better understand this process in order to help humans obtain nontoxic gold in an easier and safer manner. Normally, in order to extract gold from ores, the ores are subjected to liquid mercury, which is then boiled away so that the gold remains. However, this process can be dangerous since mercury is the most toxic of all metals. Often, the leftover mercury is washed away and can lead to environmental pollution Reuters reported. 

Nies told Newsweek that once this new process for generating gold is perfected, it could be used for any purpose. “You can do everything with gold, however, bringing a ring to your love is the nicest way to use it,” said Nies.