Move over, Kanye. There’s a new gold digger in town and let’s just say this one knows its way around a mineral deposit.
Meet Fusarium oxysporum, a fluffy pink fungus found in soils around the world. Geologists with Australia’s National Space Agency CSIRO have found that this fungus not only mines gold from deep below the surface of the Earth but also opts to wear it as any true queen might (yaaas).
The thread-like fungus attaches gold to its strands through an oxidization process, dissolving and precipitating particles of gold from its surroundings. But don’t go fungi hunting just yet: the tiny flecks of gold are so small that they are only observable with a microscope.
"Fungi can oxidize tiny particles of gold and precipitate it on their strands – this cycling process may contribute to how gold and other elements are distributed around the Earth's surface," said lead author Tsing Bohu in a statement. "Fungi are well-known for playing an essential role in the degradation and recycling of organic material, such as leaves and bark, as well as for the cycling of other metals, including aluminum, iron, manganese and calcium.”
Researchers aren’t sure whether the gold-coated fungi are indicative of a gold deposit below, but do believe that the mineral allows for some sort of biological advantage. Fungi with a hankering for gold grew larger and spread faster than those that didn’t, playing host to a more diverse range than other fungi. Altogether, it’s the first evidence that fungi play a role in how gold is cycled around the Earth’s surface – and could lend a few clues to less invasive extraction methods in the future.
"We want to understand if the fungi we studied, known as Fusarium oxysporum – and their functional genes – can be used in combination with these exploration tools to help industry to target prospective areas in a way that's less impactful and more cost-effective than drilling,” said Tsing Bohu.
Other plants and animals have similarly been observed stashing gold. Eucalyptus trees draw gold particles from tens of meters below the surface of the earth – and up to 60 million years old – via their root system and deposit it in their leaves and branches. Some species of termites and ants decorate their mounds with gold carried up from underground. According to the study published in Nature Communications, all three of these mechanisms could help create low-impact exploration and mining practices.
Fusarium oxysporum is mostly harmless and can even be beneficial to some plants, but some strains contribute to Fusarium wilt, one of the most destructive pathogenic infections in plants worldwide. It is so destructive that the US and Colombian government proposed weaponizing strains to wipe out coca and other illegal crops under an operation called “Agent Green”.