CORVALLIS, Ore. — They're invisible to the naked eye, growing in use and could have unexpected effects on human cells.
Nanoparticles — particles 1,000 times smaller in thickness than a human hair — are considered by many to be the future of materials science, but according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, there is a lack of information about the impact of nanomaterials on human health and the environment.
The EPA recently awarded a $200,000, three-year grant to Oregon State University to determine how manufactured nanomaterials damage or kill cells. Alan Bakalinsky, an OSU researcher in the College of Agricultural Sciences and the lead scientist on the grant, is studying the relationship between specific characteristics of nanoparticles, like shape and structure, and their effects on cells. The work is expected to lead to the development of safety guidelines for industrial and environmental exposure to nanomaterials.
The EPA funded research will focus on manmade nanomaterials. Because of their incredibly small size and relatively large surface area, nanoparticles can have unusual properties. If and how they get into cells, and what happens to the cells as a result are questions that the research is designed to answer.
"We're trying to identify specific structures in manufactured nanoparticles that might cause damage to cells," said Bakalinsky. "If we can determine which shapes and structures are most dangerous to cell function, it should be possible to design the materials to avoid such shapes in order to minimize the risk of damage."
Bakalinsky and Qilin Li, a collaborator on the project from Rice University and an expert in characterizing minute particles, are using Saccharomyces cerevisiae — the common yeast used to make wine, beer, and bread — as the test subject in their research. They are focusing specifically on how the shape and tendency of nanoparticles to clump together affects yeast survival.
"Yeast shares a great number of functions with human and animal cells, and provides a very powerful model to look at cells," said Bakalinsky. "It reproduces rapidly, is easily manipulated, and its entire genome was mapped years ago so we know exactly what we are looking at and can pinpoint specific functions that are relevant to how nanomaterials may or may not cause toxicity."
This genomic approach will allow for relatively quick identification of genes and proteins that play key roles in protecting cells from damage caused by these materials. Because many of these genes are also found in humans, much of what is learned about the yeast response to nanomaterials is expected to have direct relevance to how humans respond.