A review of the antibacterial effects of silver nanomaterials and potential implications for human health and the environment


Here, we present a review of the antibacterial effects of silver nanomaterials, including proposed antibacterial mechanisms and possible toxicity to higher organisms. For purpose of this review, silver nanomaterials include silver nanoparticles, stabilized silver salts, silver–dendrimer, polymer and metal oxide composites, and silver-impregnated zeolite and activated carbon materials. While there is some evidence that silver nanoparticles can directly damage bacteria cell membranes, silver nanomaterials appear to exert bacteriocidal activity predominantly through release of silver ions followed (individually or in combination) by increased membrane permeability, loss of the proton motive force, inducing de-energization of the cells and efflux of phosphate, leakage of cellular content, and disruption DNA replication. Eukaryotic cells could be similarly impacted by most of these mechanisms and, indeed, a small but growing body of literature supports this concern. Most antimicrobial studies are performed in simple aquatic media or cell culture media without proper characterization of silver nanomaterial stability (aggregation, dissolution, and re-precipitation). Silver nanoparticle stability is governed by particle size, shape, and capping agents as well as solution pH, ionic strength, specific ions and ligands, and organic macromolecules—all of which influence silver nanoparticle stability and bioavailability. Although none of the studies reviewed definitively proved any immediate impacts to human health or the environment by a silver nanomaterial containing product, the entirety of the science reviewed suggests some caution and further research are warranted given the already widespread and rapidly growing use of silver nanomaterials.

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Financial support for this research was provided by the University of California Toxic Substances Research and Training Program: Lead Campus Program in Nanotoxicology.

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Correspondence to Eric M. V. Hoek.

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Marambio-Jones, C., Hoek, E.M.V. A review of the antibacterial effects of silver nanomaterials and potential implications for human health and the environment. J Nanopart Res 12, 1531–1551 (2010).

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  • Silver
  • Nanoparticle
  • Antimicrobial
  • Antibacterial
  • Nanotechnology
  • Nanotoxicology
  • Safety
  • EHS