The Fish Story

Bacterial Gold Beckons From Superfund Sites; Kids’ Revenge in the Olden Clamming Days

By JAY MANN | Feb 28, 2018

I’m hereby dedicating the upcoming summer to mining gold … from nearby Superfund sites. That surely needs some serious explaining.

I established my summer schedule after reading about some rod-shaped, heavy-metal bacteria, Cupriavidus metallidurans. Currently, they go only by their Latin name, C. metallidurans. That makes them no less bad-ass, considering their ability to eat some of the world’s worst metal toxins – while coming out looking like solid 24K gold … literally!

When dining within an earthy environment loaded with toxic heavy metals, i.e. fiercely polluted places, C. metallidurans readily consume deadly metal nanoparticles, as they dine on their favorite in-soil nutrients. Like all living organisms, these bacteria find the heavy metals detestable, potentially deadly. To counter their toxicity, C. metallidurans perform a complex bit of alchemy, essentially altering – at a molecular level – the metals within its body.

Unbeknownst to most, polluted environments can be rich in good old $1,300-an-ounce gold; Au, on the periodic table. In fact, the sands of modern times are undergoing an increase in polluted gold. However, it’s not like you can shape a wad of heavy-metal-infested mud into a ring, drop to one knee, and propose to a significant other – unless you first employ the services of C. metallidurans.

Without going overboard with scientific specifics, pollutionesque gold is a couple ions short of its pure form. Such gone-astray gold often hooks up with some bad company, namely chlorine. It becomes auric chloride, a water-soluble compound, known as gold salt. No, this salt is not to be sprinkled on a favorite dish, to add some flavor … and color. Should you ingest gold in its salty impure form, it is thought to cause catastrophic damage to the human nervous system.

Gold salt can also ravage my C. metallidurans buddies. But not when they get their magical inner juices flowing. When killer auric chloride penetrates the inner sanctum of the bacteria – going in deeper than virtually any other heavy metals – the microbes unleash a remarkable inner defense, producing an enzyme scientifically dubbed CopA. Performing an ion-grade attitude readjustment, CopA converts crappy gold back into a shimmering, highly covetable Au state. However, it doesn’t then live happily ever after within C. metallidurans.

Even clean and glimmering gold is highly undesirable to C. metallidurans. Being one of the heaviest of heavy metals, it quickly weighs down the microbes. That’s when yet another inside action takes place, this one also bordering on magical. After an intolerably weighty load of gold gathers just under the surface membranes of the bacteria, they say no mas, excreting the Au load. It doesn’t take a load of imagination to picture this excretion as a shower of gold particles.

A recent article in livescience.com, written by Stephanie Pappas, headlines the subject in a less discreet manner: “These Bacteria Eat Toxic Metal, ‘Poop’ Gold Nuggets.”

Pappas writes, “New research reveals that special enzymes within the bacteria are responsible for changing toxic versions of gold into inert solid gold, which creates miniature gold nuggets.”

She then quotes Dietrich Nies, a molecular microbiologist at Martin Luther University in Germany. “When confronted with ever more gold, some bacterial cells are completely encased with gold,” said Nies.

Like me, you question just how large these magical bacterial gold droppings can be. Per Live Science, most “poops” take a microscope to see. However, the gold shells of C. metallidurans can “aggregate into sand-grain-size chunks,” Nies said. While I’ve never thought of a grain of sand as a “chunk,” I like his thinking. I’ll take just such chunks all day long, come summer.

Oh, one other weirdness note. Gold excreted by C. metallidurans can be a bit slimy. Say what!?

In releasing their burdensome gold, the bacteria leave the Au micro-grains slimed over, likely from a natural lubricant, called a biofilm. This signature slime has led scientists to recognize that bacteria might be a significant contributor to gold in surface environments. It’s called secondary gold. I’m fine with slimy seconds. As to the “poop” angle, I’ll be there with the Charmin.

“But, Jay, how can microbes possibly make enough gold for you to harvest?”

Volume, my friend, volume.

This is where I can eagerly note that scientists from the University of Georgia estimate our planet is home to five million trillion trillion bacteria. For you note-takers, That’s a five with 30 zeroes after it. For an unearthly perspective, that’s more bacteria than stars in the universe. What’s more, there are typically 40 million bacterial cells in a single gram of soil. While only a small fraction of those are of a gold-crapping ilk, I’m banking on heavy-metal pollution sites being all but bubbling with constantly gold-crapping C. metallidurans. The question then becomes: How much gold can a woodchuck chuck? That’s code meant for any potential investors wanting to be part of turning salt into gold via Mann’s Crappy Gold and Bacterial Alchemy Co. – with a potential work force of five million trillion trillion.

AS I RECALL: I’m at a tooth length where I’m compelled by getting-old tradition to pass on some semi-historic recollections. While I’m not quite old enough to offer way-back-when tales, my recollections easily qualify in a way-we-were sense, circa the ’50s and ’60s. Now and again, this column will be sporting some rearview mirror recalls.

Jimmy the Jokester. During my kid clammer days, I was honored to hang with one of the last relics from a generation of totally hardcore baymen: “Old” Jimmy S.

While we still have some baymen treading and raking hereabout, the way-back baymen were some mighty leathery, kick-ass characters. Those primordial baymen took their lifestyles, occupations and “tipping” seriously. “Tipping” was the process of beveraging away the strains and body wrackings that arise from day after day after day of fiercely baying about.

How hard were they? I recall now-suspect stories about baymen who got hungry while clamming and opened steamers by crushing them with their back teeth, then chewing through the pieces for the meat.

“Hey, Jay, ya want some of this clam what I just opened?”

“Uh, no thanks, bro, I’m good.”

“Old” Jimmy S. was one of the last of the great archival baymen. We kids loved when he’d drive us to the end of Holgate in his rusted-out, stripped-down, truck-ish “buggy.”

Jimmy’s bouncy once-truck buggy wouldn’t stand a prayer of being street-, beach- or even museum-legal today. Bouncing along on the bed’s plywood floor was like an amusement park ride up Seaside way. And who could forget the time I got bounced clean out? I musta rolled 10 times after hitting the wet sand. At most, I sorta recall sitting up afterward, all groggy, bruised and bleeding a bit from the broken seashells I had rolled over – at easily 35 mph. If it weren’t for my buddies yelling and pounding on the buggy’s roof, Jimmy would have never even known he’d gone and lost one of us.

Circling back to pick me up, there was nary a single “You all right?” from Jimmy. He just waited for me to crawl back aboard … and off we went. However, my unscheduled ejection and crash landing was apparently one of the funniest things Jimmy had ever seen. For years, he told and retold the story. “So, I turn back and here’s the kid, sittin’ in the sand bleedin’, lookin’ like a pig that just got shot and rolled down a hill. I’d a like to laugh my ass off.” Glad to be of historic story-telling assistance.

Jimmy was also the kindly boat captain who took us kids out to the inlet and told us we could hear springtime black drumfish, underwater. “Just put your ears to the bottom of the garvey. Ya gotta listen real hard,” he instructed. And damn if we didn’t hear the black drumfish drumming down below. I kid you not. I’m betting you can still hear them nowadays, round about May.

However, it turned out Jimmy’s real drumfish-listenin’ intent was to get our ears pinned to the garvey’s wooden bottom so he could raise a big-ass mushroom anchor over his head and drop it on the boat bottom … only inches from our heads. That little stunt left me with a periodic left-ear ringing that followed me through high school and into college. Weirdly, the ringing finally stopped when, on Maui, I dove under a 20-foot wave … and popped both eardrums. An odd cure, if ever.

But this tale is mainly about our getting even with Jimmy.

Despite his hardcore bad-assedness, Jimmy harbored a fully disproportionate dread of sharks. It was so bad, he’d freak out if anything so much as touched his legs when he was in the water treading clams. So touch we did. I almost feel bad about it now. Nah.

We would conspiratorially wait until Jimmy was into one of those rhythmic, eyes-closed, clam-treading trances, which inevitably come about after spending four hours straight hand-harvesting over 2,000 clams. Once he attained a detached level of consciousness – going underwater and coming back up, flicking clams into his basket like a backward moving machine – one of us would sneak up from behind, slip underwater, and grab his leg with our fingernails, squeezing one good and shaking his calf a bit.

As macho as Jimmy was, he’d squeal bloody murder. I liken his scream to Janet Leigh’s shower scene in “Psycho.” And, for a 60-something fellow, he could part the bay waters during his panicked rush back to the boat – the whole time shrieking obscenities, the likes of which us youngsters had never heard before. We’d be standing in the water, all “What the hell does that even mean?!”

By the time Jimmy finally clawed his way back into the boat, we’d be looking over his way, all shocked-like, yelling, “What the hell’s wrong, Jimmy!? What happened, man?”

“Another one of those damn things grabbed me! Somabitch! Liked to took half my leg off,” he’d yell, while frantically checking for signs of a shark bite.

We’d offer faux concerns. “Wow. You’re lucky to be alive!” A favorite of mine was “You know, I coulda sworn I saw a fin circling around you earlier!”

We knew we hit a payback homer when Jimmy began desperately looking around for his “warm-up flask” – which we, of course, had hidden.

The sight of a gecko-eyed Jimmy standing in the boat, holding his trusty .22 rifle at the ready, whipping his head around looking for any signs of fins will live with me forever.

I know we should go to hell for doing that to the old boy, especially after, say, the 10th time – and his never catching on to us. That said, I still don’t have the best of hearing in my anchors-aweigh ear.

Post-it note: To the late Jimmy S.’s credit, even during our most savage underwater leg grabs, like the time I employed the services of metal crab-grabbing tongs, that man adhered to a long-standing bayman’s code and never once abandoned the prize. Even in a full-panic mode back to the boat, he steadfastly held on to his trailing basket of clams. You da man, Jimmy!

jaymann@thesandpaper.net

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