What makes a natural clay antibacterial?

Lynda Williams, David W. Metge, Dennis D. Eberl, Ronald W. Harvey, Amanda G. Turner, Panjai Prapaipong, Amisha T. Poret-Peterson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

158 Scopus citations


Natural clays have been used in ancient and modern medicine, but the mechanism(s) that make certain clays lethal against bacterial pathogens has not been identified. We have compared the depositional environments, mineralogies, and chemistries of clays that exhibit antibacterial effects on a broad spectrum of human pathogens including antibiotic resistant strains. Natural antibacterial clays contain nanoscale (<200 nm), illite-smectite and reduced iron phases. The role of clay minerals in the bactericidal process is to buffer the aqueous pH and oxidation state to conditions that promote Fe2+ solubility.Chemical analyses of E. coli killed by aqueous leachates of an antibacterial clay show that intracellular concentrations of Fe and P are elevated relative to controls. Phosphorus uptake by the cells supports a regulatory role of polyphosphate or phospholipids in controlling Fe 2+. Fenton reaction products can degrade critical cell components, but we deduce that extracellular processes do not cause cell death. Rather, Fe2+ overwhelms outer membrane regulatory proteins and is oxidized when it enters the cell, precipitating Fe3+ and producing lethal hydroxyl radicals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3768-3773
Number of pages6
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Issue number8
StatePublished - Apr 15 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Chemistry(all)
  • Environmental Chemistry


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