Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


No gold without microbes


Many people love jewelry and other items made of gold. They have inconspicuous microbes to thank for this: Three billion years ago they held the noble metal in the Earth’s crust. This is the opinion at least of an expert from the University of Würzburg.

All the Earth’s gold deposits should actually be in the Earth’s core – buried deep out of mankind’s reach. After all, this metal has such a high density that in the course of the creation of the Earth it ought to have been moved to there. But in actual fact it also accumulated in the Earth’s crust.

Carbonaceous layer of sediment rocks, essentially consisting of kerogen, Witwatersrand basin, South Africa: an extremely rarely well preserved remnant of mats of microbes performing photosynthesis.

(Photo: Hartwig Frimmel)

Why did the gold stay there? “To this day this remains one of the most hotly debated issues in geology and geochemistry,” says Professor Hartwig Frimmel, chairman of the Department of Geodynamics and Geomaterials Research at the University of Würzburg. He is now adding a new theory to the debate, which suggests that prehistoric microbes are responsible for binding gold to the Earth’s crust.

Frimmel presents his idea in detail in the journal “Mineralium Deposita”. The Würzburg scientist is regarded as the world’s leading expert in gold deposits. He spent a long time as a professor at the University of Cape Town conducting research in South Africa’s Witwatersrand region, among others. This is where the world’s largest concentration of gold in the Earth’s crust can be found.

Where there is a lot of gold, there are also the remains of bacteria

What do microbes have to do with gold? “Wherever there are large quantities of gold, there are also layers of stratified carbonaceous substances that are of biological origin,” says Frimmel. “We have found evidence to suggest that these are the remains of cyanobacteria.” These original microbes inhabited the coastal regions of the Earth three billion years ago.

The cyanobacteria were the first living organisms that performed photosynthesis and first created “whiffs of oxygen”, as Frimmel says. The Earth at that time was still largely hostile to life: Rain had roughly the acidity of vinegar, and the surface water was rich in hydrogen sulfide.

Where there was oxygen, gold was bound

“But under precisely these conditions gold becomes extremely soluble in water,” explains the professor. The rivers and other bodies of water must have been very rich in gold back then. Where this water came upon colonies of cyanobacteria arranged into mats, the gold was chemically adhered to the surface of the microbes immediately by the oxygen.

So, three billion years ago a kind of “Gold Mega Event” occurred: “The chemical conditions at that time were perfect for binding gold and enabling the formation of deposits,” believes Frimmel. Over time and in this manner, for example, the huge gold deposits were created that can be found in such places as the Witwatersrand region of South Africa. At one time 100,000 tons of the treasured metal were stored there. More than half of it has already been mined.

“First whiffs of atmospheric oxygen triggered onset of crustal gold cycle”, Hartwig E. Frimmel, Quinton Hennigh, Mineralium Deposita (2015), DOI: 10.1007/s00126-014-0574-8


Prof. Dr. Hartwig Frimmel, Department of Geodynamics and Geomaterials Research, T +49 (0)931 31-85420,

Weitere Informationen: Prof. Frimmel's research

Robert Emmerich | idw - Informationsdienst Wissenschaft

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Wandering greenhouse gas
16.03.2018 | Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung

nachricht Unique Insights into the Antarctic Ice Shelf System
14.03.2018 | Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Tiny implants for cells are functional in vivo

For the first time, an interdisciplinary team from the University of Basel has succeeded in integrating artificial organelles into the cells of live zebrafish embryos. This innovative approach using artificial organelles as cellular implants offers new potential in treating a range of diseases, as the authors report in an article published in Nature Communications.

In the cells of higher organisms, organelles such as the nucleus or mitochondria perform a range of complex functions necessary for life. In the networks of...

Im Focus: Locomotion control with photopigments

Researchers from Göttingen University discover additional function of opsins

Animal photoreceptors capture light with photopigments. Researchers from the University of Göttingen have now discovered that these photopigments fulfill an...

Im Focus: Surveying the Arctic: Tracking down carbon particles

Researchers embark on aerial campaign over Northeast Greenland

On 15 March, the AWI research aeroplane Polar 5 will depart for Greenland. Concentrating on the furthest northeast region of the island, an international team...

Im Focus: Unique Insights into the Antarctic Ice Shelf System

Data collected on ocean-ice interactions in the little-researched regions of the far south

The world’s second-largest ice shelf was the destination for a Polarstern expedition that ended in Punta Arenas, Chile on 14th March 2018. Oceanographers from...

Im Focus: ILA 2018: Laser alternative to hexavalent chromium coating

At the 2018 ILA Berlin Air Show from April 25–29, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT is showcasing extreme high-speed Laser Material Deposition (EHLA): A video documents how for metal components that are highly loaded, EHLA has already proved itself as an alternative to hard chrome plating, which is now allowed only under special conditions.

When the EU restricted the use of hexavalent chromium compounds to special applications requiring authorization, the move prompted a rethink in the surface...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Virtual reality conference comes to Reutlingen

19.03.2018 | Event News

Ultrafast Wireless and Chip Design at the DATE Conference in Dresden

16.03.2018 | Event News

International Tinnitus Conference of the Tinnitus Research Initiative in Regensburg

13.03.2018 | Event News

Latest News

A new kind of quantum bits in two dimensions

19.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

Scientists have a new way to gauge the growth of nanowires

19.03.2018 | Materials Sciences

Virtual reality conference comes to Reutlingen

19.03.2018 | Event News

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>