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Heavy metals

Some of the first chemical disinfectants and antiseptics to be used were heavy metals . Heavy metals kill microbes by binding to proteins, thus inhibiting enzymatic activity ( [link] ). Heavy metals are oligodynamic, meaning that very small concentrations show significant antimicrobial activity. Ions of heavy metals bind to sulfur-containing amino acids strongly and bioaccumulate within cells, allowing these metals to reach high localized concentrations. This causes proteins to denature.

Heavy metals are not selectively toxic to microbial cells. They may bioaccumulate in human or animal cells, as well, and excessive concentrations can have toxic effects on humans. If too much silver accumulates in the body, for example, it can result in a condition called argyria , in which the skin turns irreversibly blue-gray. One way to reduce the potential toxicity of heavy metals is by carefully controlling the duration of exposure and concentration of the heavy metal.

a) photo of a copper door handle. B) Picture of silver forks. C) Picture of an incubator d) picture of Listerine mouthwash. E) Picture of a person with gray skin.
Heavy metals denature proteins, impairing cell function and, thus, giving them strong antimicrobial properties. (a) Copper in fixtures like this door handle kills microbes that otherwise might accumulate on frequently touched surfaces. (b) Eating utensils contain small amounts of silver to inhibit microbial growth. (c) Copper commonly lines incubators to minimize contamination of cell cultures stored inside. (d) Antiseptic mouthwashes commonly contain zinc chloride. (e) This patient is suffering from argyria, an irreversible condition caused by bioaccumulation of silver in the body. (credit b: modification of work by “Shoshanah”/Flickr; credit e: modification of work by Herbert L. Fred and Hendrik A. van Dijk)


Mercury is an example of a heavy metal that has been used for many years to control microbial growth. It was used for many centuries to treat syphilis. Mercury compounds like mercuric chloride are mainly bacteriostatic and have a very broad spectrum of activity. Various forms of mercury bind to sulfur-containing amino acids within proteins, inhibiting their functions.

In recent decades, the use of such compounds has diminished because of mercury’s toxicity. It is toxic to the central nervous, digestive, and renal systems at high concentrations, and has negative environmental effects, including bioaccumulation in fish. Topical antiseptics such as mercurochrome , which contains mercury in low concentrations, and merthiolate , a tincture (a solution of mercury dissolved in alcohol) were once commonly used. However, because of concerns about using mercury compounds, these antiseptics are no longer sold in the United States.


Silver has long been used as an antiseptic. In ancient times, drinking water was stored in silver jugs. N. Silvestry-Rodriguez et al. “Silver as a Disinfectant.” In Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology , pp. 23-45. Edited by GW Ware and DM Whitacre. New York: Springer, 2007. Silvadene cream is commonly used to treat topical wounds and is particularly helpful in preventing infection in burn wounds. Silver nitrate drops were once routinely applied to the eyes of newborns to protect against ophthalmia neonatorum , eye infections that can occur due to exposure to pathogens in the birth canal, but antibiotic creams are more now commonly used. Silver is often combined with antibiotics, making the antibiotics thousands of times more effective. B. Owens. “Silver Makes Antibiotics Thousands of Times More Effective.” Nature June 19 2013. http://www.nature.com/news/silver-makes-antibiotics-thousands-of-times-more-effective-1.13232 Silver is also commonly incorporated into catheters and bandages, rendering them antimicrobial; however, there is evidence that heavy metals may also enhance selection for antibiotic resistance. C. Seiler, TU Berendonk. “Heavy Metal Driven Co-Selection of Antibiotic Resistance in Soil and Water Bodies Impacted by Agriculture and Aquaculture.” Frontiers in Microbiology 3 (2012):399.

Questions & Answers

what is fermentation example ?
Sonal Reply
is it better to study microbiology and then medicine it makes no difference to go directly to medicine?
Jessee Reply
Dray's mathdme cell wall konse color k hote he
Jinal Reply
what is dray's mathdme cell wall
I confused. please help me
just confused
l don't understand it please explain it for me.
Karen Reply
epitopes are present on the surface of
Rohit Reply
at the tip of variable region on the antibody...where antigen and antibody binding sites combine...
The term that is used refer to moving microbes under a microscope are referred to as?
Lee Reply
Members of the genus Neisseria cause which of the folowing human diseases?
Farah Reply
genital infections
4. Which of the following specimens should not be refrigerated? a. Urine b. Urogenital swab
Zahraa Reply
Details about McConkey agar
what is bacteria
anamika Reply
a member of large number of unicellular microorganism which have cell wall but lack of cell organelles an oranised nucleus including somewhat can cause disease
Bacteria are usually composed of one cell onl to that are neither plants nor animals, microscopic, that may cause diseases or may be beneficial(in gut)... it depends upon their weapons. Nearly all animal life is dependent on Bacteria for their survival
what factor make bacteria colony large and how could we sterlise it in large scale
nutrient concentration temp gaseous conc ph ion or salt concentration mositure condition factors contribute to make large colony. by autoclaving we will sterilize bactetia
Colony is actually visible growth of Bacteria that is as a result of suitable environment for growth i.e optimal conditions for growth, temperature, moisture etc. there're many methods to get rid of bacteria. If We stop giving them optimal conditions for living Bacteria will die soon .
what's the difference between an antigen and a pathogen?
Pathogens are organisms that cause disease in other organisms whereas Antigen is a part of a pathogen that triggers the immune response..
so it is the antigen that dendritic cells present to the T cells and not the pathogen itself?
no no antigen are the west product or part of the pathogen. in such case bacteria it self fight with over immune response & in another case bacteria release antigens
& other antigen like pollan grain, dust particles etc.....
pathogen are microbes that can infect the body and causw illness....antigens are the part of pathogens that alert the body to an infection
antigen is a part of blood and pathogen is foreign particle which causes diseases
antigen could be non microorganism.... where as pathogen is mixroorganism
a pathogen is a disease causing organism while an antigen is a protein in the white blood cells which combats pathogens.
what type of widal test
sobhit Reply
this test determine for typhoid in this test if H,O antigen are present that indicate the positive test bac. are salmonella typhy
what h.o denotes
o: body of bacteria, h: flagellate
Explain Mould
Chinenye Reply
Explain mycoses and it's classification
why do we have hiccups?
Manisha Reply
shakey diaphragm
The antibody binding site is formed primarily by:
Asalla Reply
How many types of MICROORGANISMS do we have?
Hope Reply
Hello friends
microorganisms are divided into seven type Bacteria archaea protozoa algae fungi virus and multicellular animal parasites

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Source:  OpenStax, Microbiology. OpenStax CNX. Nov 01, 2016 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col12087/1.4
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