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Ions, not particles, make silver toxic to bacteria

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Rice University researchers report too small a dose may enhance microbes’ immunity

Rice University researchers have settled a long-standing controversy over the mechanism by which silver nanoparticles, the most widely used nanomaterial in the world, kill bacteria.

Their work comes with a Nietzsche-esque warning: Use enough. If you don’t kill them, you make them stronger.

Scientists have long known that silver ions, which flow from nanoparticles when oxidized, are deadly to bacteria. Silver nanoparticles are used just about everywhere, including in cosmetics, socks, food containers, detergents, sprays and a wide range of other products to stop the spread of germs.

But scientists have also suspected silver nanoparticles themselves may be toxic to bacteria, particularly the smallest of them at about 3 nanometers. Not so, according to the Rice team that reported its results this month in the American Chemical Society journal Nano Letters.

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