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Wednesday 23 October 2013

Money Grows on Trees: Scientists Discover Gold Particles in Australian Gum Trees

Ever hear of trees made of gold? Scientists have discovered that gum trees from the Western Australian goldfields draw up tiny particles of gold through their roots and that these particles end up in the trees' leaves and branches.

The particles themselves aren't anything huge, so it's unlikely that a tree-inspired gold rush will occur. In fact, the particles are just the size of one-fifth the diameter of a human hair--so small that they're invisible to the human eye. However, the fact that the trees are drawing up this gold reveals the unique way they're adapting to this environment and could be used to assess the quality of the soil below.

"The eucalypt acts as a hydraulic pump--its roots extend tens of meters into the ground and draw up water containing the gold," said Mel Lintern, one of the researchers, in a news release. "As the gold is likely to be toxic to the plant, it's moved to the leaves and branches where it can be released or shed to the ground."

In order to get a glimpse of these particles, the researchers used CSIRO's Maia detector for x-ray elemental imaging at the Australian Synchrotron. This allowed them to examine images of gold that would otherwise have been untraceable.

"Our advanced x-ray imaging enabled the researchers to examine the leaves and produce clear images of the traces of gold and other metals, nestled within their structure," said David Paterson, one of hte researchesr, in a news release.

While it's unlikely that people could actually harvest gold from gum leaves, though, the trees could provide valuable information. The gold in the leaves could indicate gold ore deposits buried up to tens of meters underground and under sediments that are up to 60 million years old. In fact, these trees could represent an important tool when it comes to targeting areas for exploration.

"The leaves could be used in combination with other tools to get an idea of what's happening below the surface without the need to drill," said Lintern in a news release. "It could enhance gold exploration in a way that's more targeted and environmentally friendly."

The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.


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