Two new studies are clarifying our understanding of the risks of nanomaterials on the environment and on our health. OK, we lied–the picture has never been more muddy:
Nanomaterials are being used in everything from golf clubs to computer circuitry, but little is known about the effects these minuscule materials could have on our health and environment. Two teams of Rensselaer scientists recently worked to better understand the effect of nanomaterials on both mammalian cells and bacteria. The researchers found that while carbon nanotubes inhibited growth in the cells, they sustained the growth of commonly occurring bacteria.
The seemingly contradictory findings highlight the need to better grasp the impacts these infinitesimally small particles could have when released into the environment or the human body, the researchers said. Both results were presented at the 233rd American Chemical Society (ACS) National Meeting in Chicago March 25-29, 2007, by Pavan Raja, a doctoral candidate in chemical and biological engineering who worked on both research teams.
In the first study, which was led by Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering Deanna Thompson, researchers examined the impact of carbon nanotubes on the growth of rat heart muscle cells to better understand how they affect mammalian cells — and ultimately human tissue and organs. Unlike previous research that focused on the effects of nanotube clusters on cell growth, this study looked at both the impacts of clusters and related finely dispersed material composed of small bundles of nanotubes and other nanoparticulate impurities.
The researchers discovered that the finely dispersed material, despite its low concentration, inhibited animal cell growth more than larger clusters of nanotubes. Activated carbon, a commonly used nanoporous carbon material, had a lower impact on the cells than either the large aggregates or the finely dispersed material. The findings of this study were recently published in the journal Toxicology Letters.
In the second study, which was led by Anurag Sharma, assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences, researchers monitored bacterial growth in the presence of carbon nanotubes to help better understand how the introduction of nanoscale materials might impact the environment over an extended period of time. Escherichia coli (E. coli), a commonly occurring bacterium in nature, was used as the model bacterial species.
The study revealed that while the nanotubes sustained bacterial growth, they also promoted considerable elongation of the E. coli in some instances. This finding indicates that the nanotubes may have induced a stress-related impact on the biological activity of the bacteria. This elongation was not observed with other carbon nanomaterials such as activated carbon or C60 fullerenes, which are commonly referred to as “buckyballs.”
Taken together, the two studies suggest that different nanomaterials could have widely different impacts on human health and the environment.