The fungi that eats gold

Scientists at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation have discovered a new fungi near Western Australia’s Boddington Gold Mine, in the so-called Golden Triangle, south of Perth.

According to the article in the Nature Communications journal, the fungus, a strain of the species Fusarium oxysporum, uses the oxidisation process to attach balls of gold to its strands in order to feed off them.

One of the authors of the journal article and principal research scientist at CSIRO, Dr Ryan Noble, said the fungi want the gold in their environment.

“The fungi wants to get its food, in this case it’s organic carbon that it’s breaking down, much like we do but what it uses is the gold as a catalytic process, so it converts the gold … and we think that gives it a competitive advantage over the other fungi, so where the gold is present it can use that to its advantage and make it essentially get its food quicker and more effectively so it out competes some of the other organisms in that environment,” he said.

Fusarium oxysporum is a furry fungi that coats itself in gold. Image: CSIRO.

According to the journal article, the fungi grows larger and faster than other fungi due to its food source being gold.

So where does the gold come from?

Scientists at CSIRO are yet to have an answer to this, however, it is believed there may be gold deposits underneath the fungi.

Dr Ryan said there could be a number of benefits to the discovery including the ability to help get rid of some kinds of e-waste.

“It helps us understand, again, how gold’s moving through the environment. It has a couple of implications that could be for mineral exploration purposes but another thing that’s come out of this is the potential to use these types of organisms in degrading e-waste for example so breaking down computer parts, mobile phones and filming equipment… and how you could possibly use these sorts of organisms to extract the metals and re-purpose them.”

Chief Operating Officer at Eastern Goldfields Ltd, John Croall, said that it could change the future of gold mining.

“At this point all I believe is it is something new and interesting, and that it is potentially something that exploration geologists may in the future utilise,” he said.

Dr Ryan said while there is still a long way to go before gold mining can be considered, extracting gold through the fungus would be more beneficial to the environment.

Dr Ryan Noble said using fungi to mine gold won’t happen in the near future. Video: Nina Ricci.

“It’s really exciting in terms of the future where it can be applied because we hadn’t known this was even possible with fungi… it would be a much more environmentally friendly approach than traditional methods,” he said.