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Silver bullets kill bacteria, not werewolves or witches

Friday, June 21st

The use of silver in medicine is as old as western medicine itself. Hippocrates is known to have used it to treat ulcers and wounds, the Romans almost certainly knew of its healing properties, its use continued through the middle ages and up to the present day. In the antibiotic age, interest in silver may have waned a little. But with urgent need to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria, there is resurgence in its uses.

The reason is that silver can kill bacteria selectively and, more importantly, bacteria are unable to develop resistance against it. Despite silver’s long medical history, we do not know how it operates.

A paper published today in the journal Science Translational Medicine sheds some light on silver’s success against bacteria. The most important find is that silver – unlike most antibiotics – works in more than one way. This is perhaps why bacteria are not able to build resistance to silver.

Here is silver’s multi-pronged approach: first, silver sticks very strongly to sulfur, found in parts of proteins. These sulfur groups normally bond to each other in proteins, holding them together and keeping the protein folded up in its correct shape. But if silver interacts with sulfur then the protein cannot fold correctly, and thus it cannot do its job. Next silver interferes with how bacteria use iron. Iron is often held in the places it is needed by binding to sulfur. And since silver also interacts with sulfur it stops the iron doing so. Finally, silver causes bacteria to produce extremely toxic substances called reactive oxygen species. These go on to cause damage inside the cell, harming the DNA, proteins and even the membranes that surround cells.

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