University of Calgary

Lit review reveals lack of understanding of how metals work their magic

UToday HomeMay 31, 2013

By Marie-Helene Thibeault

A recently published three-year literary review by Joe Harrison, Joseph Lemire and Raymond Turner points to a lack of understanding with respect to the study of how metals work as bacteria resistors.A recently published three-year literature review by Joe Harrison, Joseph Lemire and Raymond Turner points to a lack of understanding with respect to the study of how metals work as bacteria resistors. Photo by Marie-Helene ThibeaultThe antimicrobial properties of metals have been known since antiquity. For centuries, copper urns and silver coins have been used in water barrels to eliminate infectious organisms. Today, among other things, copper is being used in the agricultural industry to control livestock and crop infections and silver is being added to clothing to prevent odor caused by bacteria.

While the study of metals and their use as antibacterial agents has evolved over time, in many cases a fundamental understanding of how this works remains unclear. This was revealed in a recent literature review published in the May 13 Nature Reviews Microbiology by University of Calgary professor Joe Harrison, postdoctoral fellow Joseph Lemire, and professor Raymond Turner.

“There is considerable interest in the design of metal-based compounds for use as antimicrobials and alternatives to antibiotics,” explains professor Turner, who has been studying metal resistance in bacteria since the early 1990s and whose research is applicable to pollution remediation, environmental studies and in this case to the use of metals as anti-microbial agents.

“In order to support the development of these new applications, it became important for us to assess the literature,” he says.

As part of their three-year effort, the researchers concluded that while recent studies indicate that different metals cause discrete and distinct types of injuries to microbial cells as a result of oxidative stress, protein dysfunction or cell membrane damage, the modes of action of the metals still remains unclear.

“We currently know little about how metals are toxic at the biochemical and physiological level,” says Turner.

“Our study revealed that there are a lot of preconceptions and inaccurate assumptions in the literature,” corroborates Harrison, a recent Canada Research Chair in Biofilm Microbiology and Genomics.

“This review and the conclusions reached may provide new direction for future research queries in the hope of demystifying the underlying functioning of metals,” says Lemire.

 

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