Sphere or spear? Apparently cells can’t tell that an asbestos fibre or long carbon nanotube are spears due to their rounded tips according to researchers at Brown University. From the Sept. 18, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,
Through molecular simulations and experiments, the team reports in Nature Nanotechnology that certain nanomaterials, such as carbon nanotubes, enter cells tip-first and almost always at a 90-degree angle. The orientation ends up fooling the cell; by taking in the rounded tip first, the cell mistakes the particle for a sphere, rather than a long cylinder. By the time the cell realizes the material is too long to be fully ingested, it’s too late.
Here’s a representation of what the scientists mean,
Here’s what happens when a cell encounters a carbon nanotube, asbestos fibre, gold nanowires, and other materials that are long and perpendicular with rounded tips,
Like asbestos fibers, commercially available carbon nanotubes and gold nanowires have rounded tips that often range from 10 to 100 nanometers in diameter. Size is important here; the diameter fits well within the cell’s parameters for what it can handle. Brushing up against the nanotube, special proteins called receptors on the cell spring into action, clustering and bending the membrane wall to wrap the cell around the nanotube tip in a sequence that the authors call “tip recognition.” As this occurs, the nanotube is tipped to a 90-degree angle, which reduces the amount of energy needed for the cell to engulf the particle.
Once the engulfing — endocytosis — begins, there is no turning back. Within minutes, the cell senses it can’t fully engulf the nanostructure and essentially dials 911. “At this stage, it’s too late,” Gao [Huajian Gao] said. “It’s in trouble and calls for help, triggering an immune response that can cause repeated inflammation.”
I gather this is the starting point for mesothelioma. Here’s a description of the process (from the Brown University Sept. 18, 2011 news release,
“We thought the tube was going to lie on the cell membrane to obtain more binding sites. However, our simulations revealed the tube steadily rotating to a high-entry degree, with its tip being fully wrapped,” said Xinghua Shi, first author on the paper who earned his doctorate at Brown and is at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. “It is counter-intuitive and is mainly due to the bending energy release as the membrane is wrapping the tube.”
Here’s a video from Brown illustrating the process,
The whole thing has me wondering about long vs. short carbon nanotubes. Does this mean that short carbon nanotubes can be ingested successfully? If so, at what point does short become too long to ingest? It doesn’t seem like my questions are going to be answered too soon since the team would like to go in this direction (from the Brown news release),
The team would like to study whether nanotubes without rounded tips — or less rigid nanomaterials such as nanoribbons — pose the same dilemma for cells.
“Interestingly, if the rounded tip of a carbon nanotube is cut off (meaning the tube is open and hollow), the tube lies on the cell membrane, instead of entering the cell at a high-degree-angle,” Shi said.