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Liquid metal nanoparticles could tear apart superbugs like tiny Terminators

Could liquid metal be the answer to the major (and potentially deadly) problem of antibiotic resistance? Researchers at Australia’s Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) university believe so — and they’ve got the magnetic nanoparticles to back up their theory.

“Currently, there is a rise of drug-resistance among bacteria,” postdoctoral fellow Dr. Vi Khanh Truong, who worked on the project, told Digital Trends. “[It’s been predicted] that current antibiotic resistance could lead to a death toll of 10 million people by 2050. Despite the current development of antibiotics, it’s not fast enough to tackle the antibiotic-resistance problem.”

According to this project, the answer could involve the use of nanosized particles of magnetic liquid metal to shred bacteria and bacterial biofilm while preserving good cells. It carries out this “shredding” by literally using sharp pieces of tiny liquid metal to destroy the bacteria in their tracks. Remember that scene from Terminator 2 where the T-1000 Terminator, which is composed of liquid metal, impales John Connor’s foster dad with a blade that extends from its arm? That’s what we’re talking about, basically. Only millions of times tinier and, you know, with a good result.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

“Liquid metal has a unique property [whereby it stays] liquid at room temperature, and the droplet shape is surrounded by a nanometer-thick oxide layer,” Truong explained. “Further engineering was done with the inclusion of magnetic iron core inside the liquid metal droplets. Under [a] magnetic field, [the] magnetic-responsive liquid metal changes shape into a sharp nano object and moves toward the bacterial biofilm and bacterial cells.”

Aside from the fact that it’s fighting bacteria with a frickin’ mini-Terminator, the technology is promising for another less geeky reason. Bacteria are incredibly adaptable. Over time, they develop defenses to the chemicals that are used in antibiotics. However, they have no way of dealing with a physical attack such as this.

Right now, it’s still early stages for the research. But are the researchers are busy hypothesizing ways that this could be used in actual medical treatments. For instance, it could be used as a spray coating for implants, making them powerfully antibacterial. It could also potentially be developed into an injectable treatment to be utilized at the site of an infection.

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal ACS Nano.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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