The Great Work of the Metal Lover is an artwork that sits at the intersection of art, science and alchemy, re-examining the problem of transmutation through the use of modern microbiological practice. In this work, gold production is accomplished by the pairing of a highly specialized metallotolerant extremophilic bacterium (Cupriavidus metallidurans) and an engineered atmosphere contained within a customized alchemical bioreactor. The extreme, minimal ecosystem within the bioreactor forces the bacteria to metabolize high concentrations of toxic AuCl4 (gold chloride), turning soluble gold into usable 24K gold.
The Great Work of the Metal Lover exists in two parts. The first part is an installation consisting of custom laboratory equipment, including a glass alchemical bioreactor, a gas manifold and a gas tank filled with carbon dioxide and hydrogen. The process is all documented in real time by a USB microscope and a live video feed.
The second part of the work consists of a series of images made with a scanning electron microscope. Digital prints are made using modern technology. Gold deposits produced by the bacteria are identified within a polysaccharide matrix formed by cell aggregates or biofilms. Then, using ancient gold-illumination techniques, 24K gold leaf is selectively applied to regions of the print where a bacterial gold deposit has been identified. Each print contains some of the gold that was produced in the bioreactor.
Like alchemy, gold is imbued with secrets of the earth, origins of life and early metabolic processes. The Great Work of the Metal Lover speaks directly to the scientific preoccupation with trying to shape and bend biology to our will within the post-biological age, essentially questioning the ethical and political ramifications of attempting to perfect nature.
This project would not be possible without the support of the Humanities and Arts Research Program at Michigan State University and the Michigan State University Museum.
Special Thanks: The Physics and Astronomy Machine Shop, MSU Scott Bankroff - Laboratory Glass, MSU Carol Flegler - Center for Advanced Microscopy, MSU Dr. Reza Loloee - Physics and Astronomy, MSU