Toxicity mechanisms in Escherichia coli vary for silver nanoparticles and differ from ionic silver

ACS Nano. 2014 Jan 28;8(1):374-86. doi: 10.1021/nn4044047. Epub 2013 Dec 24.


Silver nanoparticles (Ag NPs) are commonly added to various consumer products and materials to impair bacterial growth. Recent studies suggested that the primary mechanism of antibacterial action of silver nanoparticles is release of silver ion (Ag(+)) and that particle-specific activity of silver nanoparticles is negligible. Here, we used a genome-wide library of Escherichia coli consisting of ∼4000 single gene deletion mutants to elucidate which physiological pathways are involved in how E. coli responds to different Ag NPs. The nanoparticles studied herein varied in both size and surface charge. AgNO3 was used as a control for soluble silver ions. Within a series of differently sized citrate-coated Ag NPs, smaller size resulted in higher Ag ion dissolution and toxicity. Nanoparticles functionalized with cationic, branched polyethylene imine (BPEI) exhibited equal toxicity with AgNO3. When we used a genome-wide approach to investigate the pathways involved in the response of E. coli to different toxicants, we found that only one of the particles (Ag-cit10) exhibited a pattern of response that was statistically similar to that of silver ion. By contrast, the pathways involved in E. coli response to Ag-BPEI particles were more similar to those observed for another cationic nanoparticle that did not contain Ag. Overall, we found that the pathways involved in bacterial responses to Ag nanoparticles are highly dependent on physicochemical properties of the nanoparticles, particularly the surface characteristics. These results have important implications for the regulation and testing of silver nanoparticles.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacokinetics
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / toxicity*
  • Biological Availability
  • Escherichia coli / drug effects*
  • Escherichia coli / genetics
  • Escherichia coli / growth & development
  • Metal Nanoparticles / toxicity*
  • Microbial Sensitivity Tests
  • Microscopy, Atomic Force
  • Microscopy, Electron, Transmission
  • Silver / chemistry
  • Silver / pharmacokinetics
  • Silver / toxicity*
  • Solubility


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Silver