During the first week of October, some interesting news came out about two Michigan State University professors who had successfully used bacteria to produce legitimate 24-carat gold from a highly toxic solution of gold chloride. It wasn't long before conspiracy theories started circulating among certain gold followers. Instead of being a global plot to devalue gold, or even a valid production option, this looks instead to be just an interesting scientific development and nothing for investors of the precious commodity to worry about.

Not Exactly New News
Perhaps the most important thing to realize about the story of "scientists using bacteria to make gold" is that it's not exactly new information. Scientists have known for a while that certain bacteria can essentially draw metals out of solutions and concentrate them into nuggets or other deposits. The same bacteria have been found on gold nuggets from sites thousands of miles apart and scientists have since figured out how the bacteria are able to "make gold."

What's more, the idea that gold can be teased from gold chloride is also not new. Add gold chloride to an acidic solution with potassium cyanide and run a current through it, and the gold will deposit on the cathode; this is how electroplating is done. Likewise, while medieval alchemical texts are notoriously unreliable, it would seem that more than a few alchemists thought they had discovered how to produce gold when in fact they were precipitating gold out of various solutions.

What makes the Michigan State news actually newsworthy is that they were able to replicate the process in a lab. Moreover, it turns out that the little critters (cupriavidus metallidurans) are even stronger than previously thought and able to survive and thrive in incredibly toxic environments.

Not Exactly Practical, Either
Contrary to some of the wilder claims that this is some international plot to undermine the gold market, it in fact seems like this process is not even close to commercial viability. It is true that gold (III) chloride does occur in nature, is highly toxic and isn't especially useful from a commercial perspective. However, it's not like there are large lakes of unusable gold chloride just sitting around, nor are bacteria the only option for exploiting it (using hydrogen peroxide or ferrous ions being other options).

In fact, one of the researchers involved (Adam Brown, an associate professor of electronic art and intermedia) acknowledged that the process is not commercially viable, and in some respects is more like an artistic project than a scientific project (it was, in fact, part of an exhibit called "The Great Work of the Metal Lover").

So, to summarize, we have two university professors using a substance (gold chloride) that scientists already knew can be precipitated into gold and a bacteria that scientists knew precipitated metals (including gold) out of solution and did so - for an art exhibit. That is not exactly what I would call a brilliant scheme to destroy the international gold market or gold standard on the part of nefarious fiat money advocates.

Science Today, Technology Tomorrow?
While the idea that vials of bacteria are going to replace Caterpillar shovels in the gold mining trade is pretty far-fetched today, the reality is that gold mining is a hard job. Most gold miners never actually see any gold at all; tiny flakes of gold are found amid tons of rock and companies have to use various concentration or leaching techniques (including the use of cyanide) to extract the gold from the ore. Perhaps then, somewhere far down the line, engineered or modified bacteria could be used as a part of a cheaper or safer process for concentrating gold.

Likewise, heavy metal contamination/pollution is a significant environmental danger and one that is not easy to clean up. Once again, maybe somewhere far down the line a company can utilize these bacteria in such a way to precipitate out the metals and help accelerate the decontamination process. There are, after all, microbes that break down petrochemicals, and there have been some commercial-grade experiments aimed at evaluating the use of bacteria as tools in oil spill clean-ups or as a part of early-warning/detection systems for spills.

The Bottom Line
Those worried that modern alchemy might undermine the value of gold can relax. Gold is a scarce, expensive to produce metal and is going to remain so for the foreseeable future. Even if scientists can now replicate the natural process by which certain bacteria form gold nuggets from solutions containing gold, it doesn't change the fact that there aren't vast deposits of gold chloride to exploit, nor any sort of commercially viable bioreactor process yet. Consequently, gold is highly likely to remain a scarce and precious metal.

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