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The fracture strength of ZnO nanowires vertically grown on sapphire substrates was measured in tensile and bending experiments. Nanowires with diameters between 60 and 310 nm and a typical length of 2 μm were manipulated with an atomic force microscopy tip mounted on a nanomanipulator inside a scanning electron microscope. The fracture strain of (7.7 ± 0.8)% measured in the bending test was found to be close to the theoretical limit of 10% and revealed a strength about twice as high as in the tensile test. From the tensile experiments, the Young's modulus could be measured to be within 30% of that of bulk ZnO, contrary to the lower values found in the literature. © 2007 IOP Publishing Ltd.