A decade of research on clays that kill human pathogens, including antibiotic-resistant strains such as methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA), has documented their common characteristics. Worldwide, ∼5% of clays tested to date are antibacterial when hydrated. Most antibacterial clays are from hydrothermally altered volcanics, where volcanogenic fluids produce minerals containing reduced metals. Ferruginous illite-smectite (I-S) is the most common clay mineral, although kaolins dominate some samples. Antibacterial clay mineral assemblages may contain other reduced Fe minerals (e.g. pyrite) that drive production of reactive oxygen species (H2O2, •OH, •O2
−) and cause damage to cell membranes and intracellular proteins. Ion exchange can also cause loss of bacterial membrane-bound Ca2+, Mg2+ and PO4
Critically important is the role of clays in buffering the hydration water pH to conditions where Al and Fe are soluble. A nanometric particle size (<200 nm) is characteristic of antibacterial clays and may be a feature that promotes dissolution. Clay interlayers or the lumen of tubular clays may absorb reduced transition metals, protecting them from oxidation. When the clays are mixed with deionized water for medicinal applications, these metals are released and oxidized.
Different antibacterial clays exhibit different modes of action. The minerals may be a source of toxins, or by adsorption may deprive bacteria of essential nutrients. In the field, the pH and Eh (oxidation state) of the hydrated clay may help to identify potential antibacterial clays. If the pH is circum-neutral, toxic metals are not soluble. However, at pH < 5 or >9 many metals are soluble and the oxidation of transition metals increases the Eh of the suspension to >400 mV, leading to bacterial oxidation.
Understanding the antibacterial mechanism of natural clay may lead to design of new treatments for antibiotic-resistant bacteria, with potential applications in wound dressings, medical implants ( joint replacements, catheters), animal feed stocks, agricultural pathogens, and production of antibacterial building materials. This research exemplifies how ‘geomimicry’ (copying geochemical processes) may open new frontiers in science.