Do natural or human engineered enzymes exist that can speed up the break down metals (element, compounds & alloys)?

If no, then what biological or chemical construct can break down metals in the same way that enzymes break down food in a person's stomach?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ No chemistry will ever be capable of literally breaking down the elements further than the single atom; chemistry can't do anything more than adding/removing electrons to it. Transmutation is a no-no! $\endgroup$ Jan 22 '14 at 22:46
  • $\begingroup$ I was actually just wondering if there were enzymes of some sort that could breakdown metal objects (e.g. kitchen utensils, aluminum cans or bottle caps) into very small particles like a fine powder. $\endgroup$
    – max
    Jan 23 '14 at 2:59

Silly answer

There is no enzyme that grinds down an Airstream, but an alligator might do the job!

Serious (but disappointing) answer

In nature, most metals seem to exist as oxides, sulfides, carbonates, halides, etc. and not as bare metals. Consequently, there was/is probably little evolutionary benefit in tackling the bare metals.

Breaking down something to into very small particles, as you described it, is a mechanical process that leaves the oxidation state of the metal unchanged. It is not a chemical transformation.

Nothing cool with enzymes an metals?

There's a lot! Two topics come to my mind:


There's a bunch of bacteria that can oxidize $\ce{Fe(II)}$ to $\ce{Fe(III)}$

  • at different pH levels
  • in the presence and absence of oxygen
  • in the presence and absence of light

Acidithiobacillus ferrooxidans and Leptospirillum ferrooxidans - look at their family names ;-) - operate at $pH\ < 4$, use the oxygen from the air and munch away pyrite.

Metal hyperaccumulation

Some plants and bacteria harvest enormous amounts of metal ions even from highly contaminates soils and store them. The metals are held by by the action of proteins. If you're interested, here is a freely available article on PLOS One Pathogens with lots of further references.


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