Biology concepts – toxicity, trace elements
Today, Christmas presents are most often associated with the gifts of the three kings who came to see the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes (although by the time they arrived, Jesus was already a toddler – camels will never be confused with jet planes). Their gifts were gold – a gift for a king, frankincense – a gift for a priest, and myrrh – a gift for one who was to die (used in burial rights).
These three gifts are not exempt from our search for biologic exceptions and amazement. In terms of biology, they are indeed gifts. This week we will talk about gold, with the others to follow on successive posts, like the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future.
At December 2012 prices, a 150 lb (69 kg) person has about 37 cents worth of gold in his/her body, excluding any dental work. Hardly worth trying to harvest, but nice to know you’re worth more than you thought. How did the gold get there and is it doing anything?
Living organisms rely on small amounts of some metals and other elements in order to carry out their metabolic reactions. As such, these elements that are needed in small amounts are called trace elements. Examples of important trace elements include selenium, iron, copper, iodine, and zinc. Zinc is probably the king of the trace elements, as it is used in over 200 different reactions in mammalian physiology.
Because you need only a “trace” of these substances to maintain growth, development and health, they are also called micronutrients. Their functions can be quite diverse. Iron is the oxygen carrier in hemoglobin, but you only need a trace in your diet because you are so good at preserving what you already have. Selenium is contained in a non-traditional amino acid called selenocysteine, which is important for antioxidant proteins (selenium replaces ).
The biologic rule is that gold is not a trace element! Supposedly, no living organism uses gold in its physiology, but you know there has to be an exception. In 2002, of the aurophilic (au = gold, and philic = loving) bacteria, Micrococcus luteus, showed that the enzyme contained gold in its active site (the area that binds the molecule to be chemical reacted). The gold was important for converting methane to methanol, giving the bacteria a way to produce energy when traditional food sources were scarce.
But we, and presumably ever other organism don’t have this system, so why is there gold in our body? It turns out that we have many things in our body that we don’t use, they just accumulate, things like lead, mercury, cobalt, arsenic. Some are toxic at low levels and some are useful unless we get too much of them. We have discussed the problems associated with having , and copper excess can be toxic as well. We said zinc is important for many reactions, but too much zinc can hinder copper absorption and you can end up with a copper deficiency. This is just as dangerous as copper excess.
have worked with a bacterium that can withstand gold chloride levels that would kill every other known organism. They found that Cupriavidus metallidurans was hundreds of time more resistant to gold chloride than any other organism.
C. metallidurans takes in the gold chloride and processes it to pure 24 karat gold, and then deposits it in a thin layer as part of the community of proteins and insoluble products that the bacteria builds around its colony. These organized layer of proteins, lipids and carbohydrates are called biofilms, and are being recognized as very important in bacteria ecology and pathology. In the case of C. metallidurans, the biofilm is intrinsically valuable to Wall Street.
Other organisms accumulate gold as well – bacteria, fungi, algae, fish, etc., but as does everything else in biology, it starts with the bacteria. It turns out that some bacteria excrete high levels of acidic amino acids – aspartate and glutamate (ate means acid). Yes, amino acids that are used to build proteins are organic acids, hence the name.
Once gold is consumed and stored by the bacteria, it enters the food chain; millions of organisms feed on bacteria, and millions of organisms feed on the feeders, and so on. Eventually, we end up eating a little gold as well. This is similar to how fish that ingest food and swim in water contaminated by mercury runoff can end up increasing the human levels of mercury – the difference is that mercury is much more toxic than gold.
The accumulation of gold in sedentary organisms may provide someone with a gold rush. showed that the saprobic fungi (those that feed on decaying material) around an existing gold mine contain much higher levels of gold than ectomycorrhizal fungi (those that are parasitic) in the same area. The accumulation of gold in soil bacteria and fungi may be able to provide scientifically astute miner with clues as to where they should dig the next mine!
The blue toadstool (Entoloma hochstetteri) is an
example of a saprobic fungus. It gains all the
nutrients it needs from the soil and from decaying
organic material. Therefore, it picks up andaccumulates other things in the soil – like gold maybe.
Bacteria may prove even more important to miners. evidence indicates bacteria that dissolve and ingest gold in the rocks and soil purify it to some degree. When they form biofilms, the gold becomes insoluble again, and nuggets or flakes are formed. Veins of gold may be due to bacterial byproducts and corpses flowing into cracks in the rocks. Makes you look at your gold ring differently, .
We might be able to thank gold-loving bacteria for more than our jewelry – gold is finding its way into medical treatments and tests these days. Because gold was rare, pure, inert, and costly, early physicians thought it just had to be good for you. Many remedies had gold incorporated into them, including a popular cure for alcoholism called the Keely cure.
The cure was so widely accepted (and patented by Dr. Keely) that even Theodore Roosevelt himself sent his brother, Elliott, to Dr Keely’s clinic in Dwight, IL to be cured of his addiction. It didn’t work, Elliott drank to the point of depression, and died from injuries that resulted from his jumping from a window.
More recent uses of gold include as an anti-inflammatory agent rheumatoid arthritis, including a compound called aurothiomalate. Just how this works remains a mystery, but in chondrocytes (the cells that make cartilage and are present in joints) showed that this drug down-regulates a signaling enzyme (MAP kinase phosphatase 1) that is important for expression of several inflammatory proteins, including cyclooxygenase, p38 MAP kinase, matrix metalloproteinase-3 and interleukin-6.
Most spectacularly, gold may help light a dark world. Plants can now be grown with gold nanoparticles that are small enough to be taken up into the leaf cells. When exposed to UV light, the gold releases energy at a wavelength that stimulates chlorophyll to bioluminesce. The .
Nieminen, R., Korhonen, R., Moilanen, T., Clark, A., & Moilanen, E. (2010). Aurothiomalate inhibits cyclooxygenase 2, matrix metalloproteinase 3, and interleukin-6 expression in chondrocytes by increasing MAPK phosphatase 1 expression and decreasing p38 phosphorylation: MAPK phosphatase 1 as a novel target for antirheumatic drugs Arthritis & Rheumatism, 62 (6), 1650-1659 DOI: 10.1002/art.27409
Levchenko, L., Sadkov, A., Lariontseva, N., Koldasheva, E., Shilova, A., & Shilov, A. (2002). Gold helps bacteria to oxidize methane Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry, 88 (3-4), 251-253 DOI: 10.1016/S0162-0134(01)00385-3