Natural antibacterial clays, when hydrated and applied topically, kill human pathogens including antibiotic resistant strains proliferating worldwide. Only certain clays are bactericidal; those containing soluble reduced metals and expandable clay minerals that absorb cations, providing a capacity for extended metal release and production of toxic hydroxyl radicals. Here we show the critical antibacterial components are soluble Fe2+ and Al3+ that synergistically attack multiple cellular systems in pathogens normally growth-limited by Fe supply. This geochemical process is more effective than metal solutions alone and provides an alternative antibacterial strategy to traditional antibiotics. Advanced bioimaging methods and genetic show that Al3+ misfolds cell membrane proteins, while Fe2+ evokes membrane oxidation and enters the cytoplasm inflicting hydroxyl radical attack on intracellular proteins and DNA. The lethal reaction precipitates Fe3+-oxides as biomolecular damage proceeds. Discovery of this bactericidal mechanism demonstrated by natural clays should guide designs of new mineral-based antibacterial agents.
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