Alchemy In The Modern World
October 3, 2012

24-karat Research Combines Art And Science To Perform Microbial Alchemy

Alan McStravick for - Your Universe Online

An amazing discovery was reported this week. Even more amazing than the discovery itself was just how the discovery was made. In an exceptional confluence of art and science, the study of Cupriavidus metallidurans showed how this resilient bacterium could not only survive the toxic nature of gold (III) tetrachloride but could react with it, creating 24-karat gold nuggets.

Microbial alchemy is what we´re doing — transforming gold from something that has no value into a solid, precious metal that´s valuable,” according to Kazem Kashefi, assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at Michigan State University.

The idea of Western alchemy has roots that date as far back as Hellenistic Egypt. Alexandria was a center for Greek alchemical knowledge, retaining that distinction through to the Roman era. One important idea surrounding alchemy was the search for the ability to turn base metals into the noble metals gold or silver. Western alchemy is recognized as a protoscience that was a primary contributor to the development of more modern sciences such as chemistry and medicine. Alchemy is considered a major departure from the modern sciences due to the inclusion of Hermetic principles and practices that are related to mythology, religion and spirituality.

Along with Adam Brown, associate professor of electronic art and intermedia, Kashefi found the metal-tolerant bacteria has the ability to grow when introduced to concentrated values of gold chloride — or liquid gold. Previously held knowledge has been augmented by new information that reports the bacteria is, in fact, 25 times stronger than previous estimates.

The two researchers, presenting their findings in an art installation entitled, “The Great Work of the Metal Lover,” use a combination of biotechnology, art and alchemy to affect the change of the tetrachloride into 24-karat gold. The installation includes a portable laboratory that is made from 24-karat gold-plated hardware, a glass bioreactor and the bacteria. This combination allows for the production of gold in real time, before an audience.

In the beginning, Brown and Kashefi provided the bacteria with massive amounts of gold chloride in the hopes they could reproduce the process that occurs in nature. It took only about a week for the bacteria to transform the toxin into a gold nugget.

“The Great Work of the Metal Lover” also incorporates artwork into the presentation. Images were made with a scanning electron microscope. Brown then applied ancient methods for the illumination of gold, placing 24-karat gold leafing on regions of the prints where a bacterial gold deposit had already been identified so each print contains at least some gold that was produced using the glass bioreactor.

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

Don´t get too excited about making your own gold just yet. Brown stipulates that a reproduction of the experiment on a larger scale would be cost prohibitive. The project has the ancillary response of raising questions about greed, economy and environmental impact, more specifically placing focus on the ethics related to science and the engineering of nature.

The recognition of “The Great Work of the Metal Lover” goes beyond mere study and academic publishing. The installation received an honorable mention at the world-renowned cyber art competition, Prix Ars Electronica, in Austria. It will remain on display until October 7. The Prix Ars Electronica is regarded as one of the most important awards for creativity and pioneering spirit in the field of digital and hybrid media, according to Brown.

“Art 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 said.