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Michigan State University Michigan State University

Brown Artwork Creates 24-Karat Gold

Just as the value of gold was posting all-time highs, two Michigan State University researchers discovered a way to actually create gold. No, not by using base metals like alchemists throughout the ages have tried. They did so by feeding massive concentrations of toxicity to a specific bacterium.

ADAM BROWN, PROFESSOR OF ELECTRONIC ART and intermedia, and Kazem Kashefi, professor of microbiology and molecular genetics, discovered that the metal-tolerant bacteria Cupriavidus metallidurans can grow on massive concentrations of gold chloride—or liquid gold, a toxic chemical compound found in nature. The two MSU researchers also found that the bacteria are at least 25 times stronger than scientists previously reported.

Brown and Kashefi fed the bacteria huge amounts of gold chloride, mimicking the process they believe happens in nature to make gold. In about a week, the bacteria transformed the toxins and produced a gold nugget.

The resulting art installation, “The Great Work of the Metal Lover,” utilizes a living system as a vehicle for artistic exploration, Brown said. It 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 says that while exploring channels for his art, the idea of whether it was possible to form gold, possibly through a metabolic process, intrigued him, as did the relationship of art to alchemy. For example, in the Renaissance, Brown notes, when much of science was in its infancy, Sir Isaac Newton was an alchemist, and there wasn’t much separation between the two fields.

“Alchemy involves the ability to create life in a vessel; gold from base metals,” Brown says. “And I had several basic questions, ‘Is it okay to tamper with nature? Is it against God? Can we bend nature to our will?’ After all, God gave us all these abilities. Consider the human genome, and what man has done there.”

Putting all of this together, Kashefi and Brown took off to try and create “gold zero.” For Adam, it was exploring his art; for Kazem, it was expanding his interests in microbiology.

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

Kashefi agrees, and adds: “Microbial alchemy is what we’re doing—transforming gold from something that has no value into a solid, precious metal that is valuable.”

Besides the gold-creation component, 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.

The two researchers say it would be cost-prohibitive to reproduce their experiment on a larger scale. But, they say that their success in creating gold raises questions about greed, economy and environmental impact, focusing on the ethics related to science and the engineering of nature.

“The Great Work of the Metal Lover” installation was selected for exhibition and received an honorable mention at the world-renowned cyber art competition, Prix Ars Electronica, in Austria, where it was on display. Prix Ars Electronica awards recognize creativity and pioneering spirit in the field of digital and hybrid media.

Concludes 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 post-biological age.”

See more from Adam Brown here:

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