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Jagged graphene can slice into cell membranes




A collaboration of biologists, engineers, and material scientists at Brown University has found that jagged edges of graphene can easily pierce cell membranes, allowing graphene to enter the cell and disrupt normal function. Understanding the mechanical forces of nanotoxicity should help engineers design safer materials at the nanoscale.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Researchers from Brown University have shown how tiny graphene microsheets — ultra-thin materials with a number of commercial applications — could be big trouble for human cells.

Jagged graphene can slice into cell membranes

The research shows that sharp corners and jagged protrusions along the edges of graphene sheets can easily pierce cell membranes. After the membrane is pierced, an entire graphene sheet can be pulled inside the cell where it may disrupt normal function. The new insight may be helpful in finding ways to minimize the potential toxicity of graphene, said Agnes Kane, chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Brown and one of the study’s authors.

At a fundamental level, we want understand the features of these materials that are responsible for how they interact with cells,” Kane said. “If there’s some feature that is responsible for its toxicity, then maybe the engineers can engineer it out.”

The findings were published online July 9 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Discovered about a decade ago, graphene is a sheet of carbon just one atom thick. It is incredibly strong despite being so thin and has remarkable electronic, mechanical, and photonic properties. Commercial applications in small electronic devices, solar cells, batteries and even medical devices are just around the corner. But not much is known about what effect these materials might have if they get inside the body either during the manufacturing process or during a product’s lifecycle.

 

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