Metal and metal oxide nanoparticles are among the most commonly used nanomaterials and their potential for adversely affecting environmental systems raises concern. Complex microbial consortia underlie environmental processes, and the potential toxicity of nanoparticles to microbial systems, and the consequent impacts on trophic balances, is particularly worrisome. The diverse array of metal and metal oxides, the different sizes and shapes that can be prepared and the variety of possible surface coatings complicate assessments of toxicity. Further muddling biocidal interpretations are the diversity of microbes and their intrinsic tolerances to stresses. Here, we review a range of studies focused on nanoparticle–microbial interactions in an effort to correlate the physical–chemical properties of engineered metal and metal oxide nanoparticles to their biological response. General conclusions regarding the parent material of the nanoparticle and the nanoparticle's size and shape on potential toxicity can be made. However, the surface coating of the material, which can be altered significantly by environmental conditions, can ameliorate or promote microbial toxicity. Understanding nanoparticle transformations and how the nanoparticle surface can be designed to control toxicity represents a key area for further study. Additionally, the vast array of microbial species and the structuring of these species within communities complicate extrapolations of nanoparticle toxicity in real world settings. Ultimately, to interpret the effect and eventual fate of engineered materials in the environment, an understanding of the relationship between nanoparticle properties and responses at the molecular, cellular and community levels will be essential.
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