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23 October 2013 News Release

Eucalyptus trees in the Kalgoorlie region of Western Australia are drawing up gold particles from the earth via their root system and depositing it in their leaves and branches.

[Music plays and text appears: CSIRO discovers gold grows on trees]

[Image changes to Dr Mel Lintern, CSIRO geochemist]

Dr Lintern:  We’ve actually discovered something really interesting about Australian eucalypt trees. We’ve discovered that gold grains are growing within the leaves of the eucalypt trees. Now this actually tells us something about the environment in which the trees are growing. In the case of the gold growing in the leaves it tells us that there’s a gold deposit beneath where we’re standing and in some of the research we’ve done the gold deposit was down 30 metres below the surface which is an incredible ten storeys high.

[Image changes to show a computer generated tree and it’s roots system with yellow dots moving up the tree, which represent the nutrients and gold being taken from the ground]

The tree acts like a hydraulic pump. Water’s being brought up with nutrients and a little bit of gold right up to the foliage and in so doing the gold is being deposited in the leaves and being shed by the tree.

[Once the yellow dots reach the leaves, the leaves drop to the ground]

The reason why the tree is shedding this gold is because the tree sees the gold, even though there’s small amounts of it, as being quite toxic and so it’s trying to get rid of that gold from its system.

[Image changes to show Dr Lintern holding a eucalypt leaf in his hands]

Of course the amount of gold that’s in the leaf is very, very tiny and you can’t see it with the naked eye. And that is when we need the powers of the Australian Synchrotron to help us see this gold. Now the Australian Synchrotron is a fantastic piece of equipment. It’s able to analyse elements such as gold in three dimensions within the leaf and this has enabled us to see that the gold is actually contained within the leaf and not on the surface as dust which is very important.

[Image changes to show an aerial view of trees]

By sampling leaves and vegetation and the soil and even termite mounds what we’re actually doing is driving the exploration dollar a bit further. Drilling can be expensive, it’s very useful but it can be expensive so by analysing the vegetation at the surface we can cut down costs so that the money for exploration can be used for other things. The other point of course as well is that sampling vegetation is a very environmentally benign way of exploring.

[Image has changed back to Dr Lintern]

We've only really scratched the surface with this research. We’ve found that some trees will take up gold, others don’t and so we need to do some more research to find out why this is happening, to make it into a robust exploration technique.

[Music plays, CSIRO logo appears with the text: Big ideas start here]

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Scientists from CSIRO made the discovery and have published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.

"The eucalypt acts as a hydraulic pump – its roots extend tens of metres into the ground and draw up water containing the gold. 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," CSIRO geochemist Dr Mel Lintern said.

The discovery is unlikely to start an old-time gold rush – the "nuggets" are about one-fifth the diameter of a human hair. However, it could provide a golden opportunity for mineral exploration, as the leaves or soil underneath the trees could indicate gold ore deposits buried up to tens of metres underground and under sediments that are up to 60 million years old.

"The leaves could be used in combination with other tools as a more cost effective and environmentally friendly exploration technique," Dr Lintern said.

"By sampling and analysing vegetation for traces of minerals, we may get an idea of what’s happening below the surface without the need to drill. It’s a more targeted way of searching for minerals that reduces costs and impact on the environment.

"Eucalyptus trees are so common that this technique could be widely applied across Australia. It could also be used to find other metals such as zinc and copper."

Using CSIRO’s Maia detector for x-ray elemental imaging at the Australian Synchrotron, the research team was able to locate and see the gold in the leaves. The Synchrotron produced images depicting the gold, which 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," principal scientist at the Australian Synchrotron Dr David Paterson said.

"Before enthusiasts rush to prospect this gold from the trees or even the leaf litter, you need to know that these are tiny nuggets, which are about one-fifth the diameter of a human hair and generally invisible by other techniques and equipment."

CSIRO research using natural materials, such as calcrete and laterite in soils, for mineral exploration has led to many successful ore deposit discoveries in regional Australia. The outcomes of the research provide a direct boost to the national economy.

Access the full paper at Nature Communications

Images

Eucalyptus leaf showing traces of gold.
Eucalyptus leaves showing traces of different minerals.
Gum leaf samples showing traces of manganese.

Audio

Dr Lintern talks about gold grains growing within the leaves of the eucalypt trees.
Dr Lintern talks about how the gold is being deposited in the leaves.

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