The discovery and development of novel antibacterial agents is essential to address the rising health concern over antibiotic resistant bacteria. This research investigated the antibacterial activity of a natural clay deposit near Crater Lake, Oregon, that is effective at killing antibiotic resistant human pathogens. The primary rock types in the deposit are andesitic pyroclastic materials, which have been hydrothermally altered into argillic clay zones. High-sulfidation (acidic) alteration produced clay zones with elevated pyrite (18%), illite-smectite (I-S) (70% illite), elemental sulfur, kaolinite and carbonates. Low-sulfidation alteration at neutral pH generated clay zones with lower pyrite concentrations pyrite (4-6%), the mixed-layered I-S clay rectorite (R1, I-S) and quartz.
Antibacterial susceptibility testing reveals that hydrated clays containing pyrite and I-S are effective at killing (100%) of the model pathogens tested (E. coli and S. epidermidis) when pH (< 4.2) and Eh (> 450 mV) promote pyrite oxidation and mineral dissolution, releasing > 1 mM concentrations of Fe2+, Fe3+ and Al3+. However, certain oxidized clay zones containing no pyrite still inhibited bacterial growth. These clays buffered solutions to low pH (< 4.7) and oxidizing Eh (> 400 mV) conditions, releasing lower amounts (< 1 mM) of Fe and Al. The presence of carbonate in the clays eliminated antibacterial activity due to increases in pH, which lower pyrite oxidation and mineral dissolution rates.
The antibacterial mechanism of these natural clays was explored using metal toxicity and genetic assays, along with advanced bioimaging techniques. Antibacterial clays provide a continuous reservoir of Fe2+, Fe3+ and Al3+ that synergistically attack pathogens while generating hydrogen peroxide (H2O¬2). Results show that dissolved Fe2+ and Al3+ are adsorbed to bacterial envelopes, causing protein misfolding and oxidation in the outer membrane. Only Fe2+ is taken up by the cells, generating oxidative stress that damages DNA and proteins. Excess Fe2+ oxidizes inside the cell and precipitates Fe3+-oxides, marking the sites of hydroxyl radical (•OH) generation. Recognition of this novel geochemical antibacterial process should inform designs of new mineral based antibacterial agents and could provide a new economic industry for such clays.