Bacterial silver resistance: molecular biology and uses and misuses of silver compounds

FEMS Microbiol Rev. 2003 Jun;27(2-3):341-53. doi: 10.1016/S0168-6445(03)00047-0.


Resistance to silver compounds as determined by bacterial plasmids and genes has been defined by molecular genetics. Silver resistance conferred by the Salmonella plasmid pMGH100 involves nine genes in three transcription units. A sensor/responder (SilRS) two-component transcriptional regulatory system governs synthesis of a periplasmic Ag(I)-binding protein (SilE) and two efflux pumps (a P-type ATPase (SilP) plus a three-protein chemiosmotic RND Ag(I)/H+ exchange system (SilCBA)). The same genes were identified on five of 19 additional IncH incompatibility class plasmids but thus far not on other plasmids. Of 70 random enteric isolates from a local hospital, isolates from catheters and other Ag-exposed sites, and total genomes of enteric bacteria, 10 have recognizable sil genes. The centrally located six genes are found and functional in the chromosome of Escherichia coli K-12, and also occur on the genome of E. coli O157:H7. The use of molecular epidemiological tools will establish the range and diversity of such resistance systems in clinical and non-clinical sources. Silver compounds are used widely as effective antimicrobial agents to combat pathogens (bacteria, viruses and eukaryotic microorganisms) in the clinic and for public health hygiene. Silver cations (Ag+) are microcidal at low concentrations and used to treat burns, wounds and ulcers. Ag is used to coat catheters to retard microbial biofilm development. Ag is used in hygiene products including face creams, "alternative medicine" health supplements, supermarket products for washing vegetables, and water filtration cartridges. Ag is generally without adverse effects for humans, and argyria (irreversible discoloration of the skin resulting from subepithelial silver deposits) is rare and mostly of cosmetic concern.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Drug Resistance, Bacterial / genetics*
  • Escherichia coli / genetics
  • Escherichia coli / metabolism
  • Genes, Bacterial / genetics
  • Models, Biological
  • Models, Genetic
  • Plasmids / genetics
  • Salmonella / genetics
  • Salmonella / metabolism
  • Sequence Analysis, DNA
  • Silver / adverse effects
  • Silver / metabolism*
  • Silver / pharmacology
  • Silver / therapeutic use*
  • Silver Compounds / metabolism
  • Silver Sulfadiazine / pharmacology


  • Silver Compounds
  • Silver
  • Silver Sulfadiazine