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Does Gold Have a Purpose? Science Hints at Answers

Photo: A scene from the Klondike Gold Rush, by Hegg, E.A (1867-1948) / Public domain.

Was there ever a time when gold did not fascinate human beings? It seems not. The Bible itself alludes to this primordial fascination, enigmatically locating the Garden of Eden by reference to gold deposits that are said to be of a particularly high quality. But here is a mystery. It arises from the observation that there is too much gold on Earth to fit current theories of nucleosynthesis. Gold is also too heavy to be found in quantity on Earth’s surface. Adding to the puzzle, biochemists are finding surprising interactions of cells with gold, and are using gold nanoparticles for diagnosing and treating diseases such as cancer. 

A question suggests itself: Does gold have a function beyond exhibiting one’s wealth? The answer may be no. It may just be that people are generally attracted to gold for its shiny looks, and because it is relatively rare and hard to find, it tends to be valued more than iron, copper, and other metals. A gold rush makes sense. But a copper rush? Not so much. And yet, perhaps there is more to gold than aesthetics.

“Too Much Gold”

A report at Live Science observes, “There’s too much gold in the universe. No one knows where it came from.” Rafi Letzter begins straightforwardly:

Here’s the problem: Gold is an element, which means you can’t make it through ordinary chemical reactions — though alchemists tried for centuries. To make the sparkly metal, you have to bind 79 protons and 118 neutrons together to form a single atomic nucleus. That’s an intense nuclear fusion reaction. But such intense fusion doesn’t happen frequently enough, at least not nearby, to make the giant trove of gold we find on Earth and elsewhere in the solar system. And a new study has found the most commonly-theorized origin of gold — collisions between neutron stars — can’t explain gold’s abundance either. So where’s the gold coming from? There are some other possibilities, including supernovas so intense they turn a star inside out. Unfortunately, even such strange phenomena can’t explain how blinged out the local universe is, the new study finds. [Emphasis added.]

Science Daily also highlights a paper from the ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3D (ASTRO 3D) that claims, 

Neutron star collisions do not create the quantity of chemical elements previously assumed, a new analysis of galaxy evolution finds. The research also reveals that current models can’t explain the amount of gold in the cosmos — creating an astronomical mystery.

How Does Gold Make It to Earth’s Surface?

Five years ago, in April 2015, a team of scientists writing in PNAS reported that gold can get to the surface of the earth from great depths by a very efficient process. It can arrive at rates millions of times higher than expected!

Gold resources on Earth result from an exceptional concentration phenomenon yielding metal contents in ore a thousand to a million times higher than those in common rocks. We show that this process is controlled by sulfur radical ions (S3), which strongly bind Au in aqueous solution at elevated temperatures and pressures and allow very efficient extraction, transport, and deposition of gold by geological fluids. Thus, the most inert metal of the periodic table may be very mobile, which explains key features of known gold deposits and offers new possibilities for resource prospecting. Furthermore, the high capacity of the radical ions to solubilize gold may be used for its selective extraction from ores and hydrothermal synthesis of Au-based nanomaterials.

ID (intelligent design) scientists have noted the uncanny availability of many essential elements at the surface of the earth, including metals like iron, zinc, copper, magnesium, and unexpected ones like manganese, molybdenum, and cobalt. In his new book The Miracle of the Cell, Michael Denton points out the “extraordinary fitness of transition metals” in biological processes. He specifically mentioned iron, copper, zinc, magnesium, and manganese. Is gold next in line? 

Recall that the non-metal element bromine was recently found to be essential in an indirect way (see the article on molybdenum linked above). Denton has produced a series of videos and books highlighting amazing coincidences among chemistry, biology, and physics that work to the benefit of not just life, but human life. They reinforce the feelings of the late Freeman Dyson

As we look out into the Universe and identify the many accidents of physics and astronomy that have worked together to our benefit, it almost seems as if the Universe must in some sense have known that we were coming.

Biological Clues

For years now, medical scientists have been using gold nanoparticles (GNP) as therapeutic agents in cancer treatment. One method, described in Nature Communications last month, is to inject these tiny packages of gold atoms that can travel to a tumor and be heated by lasers, killing the cancer cells but leaving other tissues unaffected. Recently, however, hints have arisen that gold has always interacted with cells in unexpected ways.

Scientists have long thought that gold (Au, atomic element 79, a rather heavy element) was either inert in the body or possibly toxic. Last December, the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) asked the question, “What happens to gold nanoparticles in cells?”

Gold nanoparticles, which are supposed to be stable in biological environments, can be degraded inside cells. This research conducted by teams from the CNRS, l’Université de Paris, Sorbonne Université, and l’Université de Strasbourg will be published in PNAS on December 16 2019, and reveals the ability of cells to metabolize gold, which is nevertheless not essential for their functioning. This study opens the way for a better understanding of the life cycle of gold nanoparticles in organisms.

The paper in PNAS is titled, “Unexpected intracellular biodegradation and recrystallization of gold nanoparticles.” Balfourier et al. know that fifty years ago “gold salts” were used in treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, and that gold ions from these treatments, and gold from cosmetics, could form “aurosomes” that persisted for some time. It was thought that these packages formed in lysosomes, the cell’s garbage cans, to protect the body from gold toxicity. The CNRS hints that more must be going on, because thousands of genes are involved in the “metabolism” of gold and work to recrystallize it. The scientists 

tracked the evolution of gold nanoparticles for 6 months in a cellular environment, and showed that they underwent significant transformations after a few weeks. By measuring the expression of over 18,000 genes over time, they revealed a biological process that includes mechanisms of detoxification and cell protection, which are also involved in the degradation of other nanomaterials. They also observed both the presence of non-degraded nanoparticles and degradation products in the form of nanoleaves….

This unexpected result, which generalises the fate of gold nanoparticles in organisms, could help in the future to better evaluate the toxicity of gold nanoparticles and their capacity to be eliminated from the organism. This interdisciplinary work also highlights that gold, whatever its initial form, can be metabolized by mammals despite not being essential to their survival.

Intelligent design theory does not require a biological or physical item to be essential. After all, the gall bladder, appendix, and tonsils can be removed without life-threatening consequences. Art is not essential but is (usually) intelligently designed. Gold does not appear to have a function essential for life at this time. Admittedly, existing cellular pathways for dealing with generic contraband could explain the observations. But the finding that many genes are involved in handling it, and that it persists in tissues for at least six months, is suggestive that life’s coding had the foresight to incorporate gold and perhaps utilize it for purposes other than vanity. One analogy is how our ears incorporate silicate “rocks” (otoconia) into the balance organs to help us sense gravity. Another analogy is how some bacteria incorporate magnetite particles for navigation. Are cells packaging gold atoms into aurosomes for a function? The sources mentioned above suggest this is an interesting question deserving more research.

Converging Hints

The mystery of biological gold combines hints from independent directions: 

  • Gold’s abundance cannot (yet) be explained by astrophysics;
  • Gold is found at the surface of the Earth by a rapid transport process, despite being a heavy element that should have sunk to the core of a molten planet;
  • Cells appear to be well designed to “metabolize” gold; 
  • Gold nanoparticles are recrystallized by cells into nanoleaves; 
  • Gold nanoleaves can persist in the body for lengthy periods of time; and
  • Medical science is now finding gold useful for therapeutics.

These findings do not yet convincingly answer the question of whether gold has a purpose. Since ID advocates are better equipped to think outside the box than are the paradigm-locked materialist scientists, they are more free to consider a positive answer — showing once again that intelligent design is not a “science stopper” but a fruitful way to pursue interesting questions. If the answer is “Yes, gold has a purpose,” the applications could be profound.