By day it’s an internationally admired treasure. By night it’s the ninja of the metal world undertaking complex missions, tackling disease and providing valuable solutions in modern technology. Gold it seems has a remarkable CV!

Researchers have found that the unique properties of gold allow the metal to undertake some important roles in science and medicine, including the delivery of vital drugs into the human body.

Here’s the science…

Gold is a very stable metal, providing the perfect scaffolding for other materials to attach themselves too. Researchers found that they could introduce hormones, antibodies, and biological materials into the body by coating them around gold particles. The amount of gold we’re talking about is tiny, leading to its name, nanogold. Nanogold is a particle so small that it has to be measured in nanometres. To put it in perspective, one nanometre is equal to one one-billionth of a metre!

Chris Kiely from Nanocharacterization Laboratory in Lehigh’s Center for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology explains more:

“Normal bulk gold is shiny, it is gold in colour, it is inert, and it conducts electricity…
If, however, you shrink gold down to a nanoparticle, its properties change dramatically. Its colour changes, it becomes a very good catalyst, and is no longer a metal – instead it turns into a semiconductor.”

Why is nanogold so effective?

Gold nanoparticles are seen to be a safe way of delivering drugs, as they do not disrupt human cells. Cell walls are designed to be good at protecting their contents, yet coated nanogold can cross cell membranes without damaging walls or totally destroying the cell. Sneaky. As a bonus, the particles close up their VIP entrance behind them, meaning the contents of the cell do not escape into the rest of the body.

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The potential for this new cell access is huge, for example, gold particles are good at capturing x-rays, so they could be used to penetrate cancer cells. After being blasted with x-rays they could destroy the cells from within.

The versatility of gold nanoparticles

Gold does not just have ‘medical genius’ tagged to its LinkedIn profile, it is being used in other industries too. Researchers have coated gold particles with DNA and injected them into plant embryos to enhance plant plastids, which are responsible for essential life processes like photo syntheses and food storage.

The value of gold travels far beyond the everyday uses as seen on the surface. JRR Tolkien summarises the extraordinary effects of gold that are not so obvious:

“All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost; The old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost.”