From warding off vampires to killing werewolves, silver has long been considered a mystical element in folklore. Now scientists are finding that there maybe some truth to those tall tales after all.

Researchers at Boston University in Massachusetts, led by biomedical engineer James Collins, have discovered that when silver is added to antibiotics, it can make the drugs 10 to 1,000 times more effective at fighting harmful bacterial infections. The precious metal could even be the key to solving the modern problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, reports Scientific American.

Doctors have recognized silver's antibiotic properties since Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, first described its ability to fight infections in 400 B.C. How it works has remained a mystery, however. It's no surprise that many folklorists have succumbed to the belief that the element must have mystical or magical properties.

The research performed by Collins' team is finally beginning to unravel the mystery. They found that silver — in the form of dissolved ions — makes the cell membranes of bacteria more permeable. This ultimately disrupts a cell's metabolism, forcing a cell to produce oxygen compounds, which become toxic in abundance.

The team then added a small amount of silver to antibiotics, which increased their effectiveness as much as a thousandfold against bacterial infections in mice. Even better, the team used these silver-laced antibiotics against bacterial strains known to be resistant to the drugs. The results were staggering: the bacteria seemed to lose their resistance.

“It’s not so much a silver bullet; more a silver spoon to help the ... bacteria take their medicine,” said Collins.

Antibiotic resistance is a growing concern in contemporary medicine, and has even been called one of the preeminent public health concerns of the 21st century. Bacteria are developing resistance to our drugs faster than new drugs can be developed. If solving the problem is as simple as using silver, then Collins' research could be a breakthrough of magnanimous proportions.

Silver treatment could come with its share of risks, too, though. Just as the precious metal can be toxic to bacteria, it can be toxic to human tissue. In fact, ingesting too much silver is known to cause a condition called argyria, which causes the skin to permanently turn blue-grey in color. So researchers will have to proceed with caution before advancing the treatment to human trials.

“We’re also encouraging people to look at what features of silver caused the helpful effects, so they can look for nontoxic versions,” said Collins.

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Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Silver could be miracle cure for antibiotic-resistant bacteria
Silver can do more than kill werewolves and vampires. When it's added to antibiotics, silver could make those drugs 1,000 times more effective.