Metallic nanoparticles show plasmon resonance phenomena when irradiated with electromagnetic radiation of a suitable wavelength, whose value depends on their composition, size, and shape. The damping of the surface electron oscillation causes a release of heat, which causes a large increase in local temperature. Furthermore, this increase is enhanced when nanoparticle aggregation phenomena occur. Local temperature increase is extensively exploited in photothermal therapy, where light is used to induce cellular damage. To activate the plasmon in the visible range, we synthesized 50 nm diameter spherical gold nanoparticles (AuNP) coated with polyethylene glycol and administered them to an E. coli culture. The experiments were carried out, at different gold nanoparticle concentrations, in the dark and under irradiation. In both cases, the nanoparticles penetrated the bacterial wall, but a different toxic effect was observed; while in the dark we observed an inhibition of bacterial growth of 46%, at the same concentration, under irradiation, we observed a bactericidal effect (99% growth inhibition). Photothermal measurements and SEM observations allowed us to conclude that the extraordinary effect is due to the formation, at low concentrations, of a light-induced cluster of gold nanoparticles, which does not form in the absence of bacteria, leading us to the conclusion that the bacterium wall catalyzes the formation of these clusters which are ultimately responsible for the significant increase in the measured temperature and cause of the bactericidal effect. This photothermal effect is achieved by low-power irradiation and only in the presence of the pathogen: in its absence, the lack of gold nanoparticles clustering does not lead to any phototoxic effect. Therefore, it may represent a proof of concept of an innovative nanoscale pathogen responsive system against bacterial infections.
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