Tag Archives: synthetic nanoparticles

Using sugar for a better way to clean nanoparticles from organisms

Researchers at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have found that a laboratory technique used for over 60 years is the best way to date to clean nanoparticles from organisms. From a Jan. 26, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Sometimes old-school methods provide the best ways of studying cutting-edge tech and its effects on the modern world.

Giving a 65-year-old laboratory technique a new role, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have performed the cleanest separation to date of synthetic nanoparticles from a living organism. The new NIST method is expected to significantly improve experiments looking at the potential environmental and health impacts of these manufactured entities. It will allow scientists to more accurately count how many nanoparticles have actually been ingested by organisms exposed to them.

A Jan. 26, 2017 NIST news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, offers more detail,

The common roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans has been used in recent years as a living model for laboratory studies of how biological and chemical compounds may affect multicellular organisms. These compounds include engineered nanoparticles (ENPs), bits of material between 1 and 100 nanometers (billionths of a meter, or about 1/10,000 the diameter of a red blood cell). Previous research has often focused on quantifying the amount and size of engineered nanoparticles ingested by C. elegans. Measuring the nanoparticles that actually make it into an organism is considered a more relevant indicator of potential toxicity than just the amount of ENPs to which the worms are exposed.

Traditional methods for counting ingested ENPs have produced questionable results. Currently, researchers expose C. elegans to metal ENPs such as silver or gold in solution, then rinse the excess particles away with water followed by centrifugation and freeze-drying. A portion of the “cleaned” sample produced is then typically examined by a technique that determines the amount of metal present, known as inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). It often yields ENP counts in the tens of thousands per worm; however, those numbers always seem too high to NIST researchers working with C. elegans.

“Since ICP-MS will detect all of the nanoparticles associated with the worms, both those ingested and those that remain attached externally, we suspect that the latter is what makes the ‘ENPs’ per-worm counts so high,” said NIST analytical chemist Monique Johnson (link sends e-mail), the lead author on the ACS Nano paper. “Since we only wanted to quantify the ingested ENPs, a more robust and reliable separation method was needed.”

Luckily, the solution to the problem was already in the lab.

Cross section of the roundworm C. elegans

Scanning electron micrograph showing a cross section of the roundworm C. elegans with two ingested engineered nanoparticles (red dots just right of center). Images such as this provided NIST researchers with visual confirmation that nanoparticle consumption actually occurred. Credit: K. Scott/NIST

In the course of culturing C. elegans for ENP-exposure experiments, Johnson and her colleagues had used sucrose density gradient centrifugation, a decades-old and established system for cleanly separating cellular components, to isolate the worms from debris and bacteria. “We wondered if the same process would allow us to perform an organism-from-ENP separation as well, so I designed a study to find out,” Johnson said.

In their experiment, the NIST researchers first exposed separate samples of C. elegans to low and high concentrations of two sizes of gold nanospheres, 30 and 60 nanometers in diameter. The researchers put each of the samples into a centrifuge and removed the supernatant (liquid portion), leaving the worms and ENPs in the remaining pellets. These were centrifuged twice in a salt solution (rather than just water as in previous separation methods), and then centrifuged again, but this time, through a uniquely designed sucrose density gradient.

“From top to bottom, our gradient consisted of a salt solution layer to trap excess ENPs and three increasingly dense layers of sucrose [20, 40 and 50 percent] to isolate the C. elegans,” Johnson explained. “We followed up the gradient with three water rinses and with centrifugations to ensure that only worms with ingested ENPs, and not the sucrose separation medium with any excess ENPs, would make it into the final pellet.”

Analyzing the range of masses in the ultrapurified samples indicated gold levels more in line with what the researchers expected would be found as ingested ENPs. Experimental validation of the NIST separation method’s success came when the worms were examined in detail under a scanning electron microscope (SEM).

“For me, the eureka moment was when I first saw gold ENPs in the cross section images taken from the C. elegans samples that had been processed through the sucrose density gradient,” Johnson said. “I had been dreaming about finding ENPs in the worm’s digestive tract and now they were really there!”

The high-resolution SEM images also provided visual evidence that only ingested ENPs were counted. “No ENPs were attached to the cuticle, the exoskeleton of C. elegans, in any of the sucrose density gradient samples,” Johnson said. “When we examined worms from our control experiments [processed using the traditional no-gradient, water-rinse-only separation method], there were a number of nanospheres found attached to the cuticle.

Now that it has been successfully demonstrated, the NIST researchers plan to refine and further validate their system for evaluating the uptake of ENPs by C. elegans. “Hopefully, our method will become a useful and valuable tool for reducing the measurement variability and sampling bias that can plague environmental nanotoxicology studies,” Johnson said.

They’ve tested this technique on gold nanoparticles, which begs the question, What kinds of nanoparticles can this technique be used for? Metal nanoparticles only or all nanoparticles?

I’m sure the researchers have already asked these questions and started researching the answers. While the rest of us wait, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper about this promising new technique,

Separation, Sizing, and Quantitation of Engineered Nanoparticles in an Organism Model Using Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry and Image Analysis by Monique E. Johnson, Shannon K. Hanna, Antonio R. Montoro Bustos, Christopher M. Sims, Lindsay C. C. Elliott, Akshay Lingayat, Adrian C. Johnston, Babak Nikoobakht, John T. Elliott, R. David Holbrook, Keana C. K. Scott, Karen E. Murphy, Elijah J. Petersen, Lee L. Yu, and Bryant C. Nelson. ACS Nano, 2017, 11 (1), pp 526–540 DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.6b06582 Publication Date (Web): December 16, 2016

Copyright This article not subject to U.S. Copyright. Published 2016 by the American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Synthesized nanoparticles with the complexity of protein molecules

Caption: The structure of the largest gold nanoparticle to-date, Au246(SR)80, was resolved using x-ray crystallography. Credit: Carnegie Mellon University

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) researchers synthesized a self-assembled nanoparticle of gold as they built on their 2015 work described in my April 14, 2015 posting (Nature’s patterns reflected in gold nanoparticles). Here’s the latest from the team in a Jan. 23, 2017 news item on phys.org,

Chemists at Carnegie Mellon University have demonstrated that synthetic nanoparticles can achieve the same level of structural complexity, hierarchy and accuracy as their natural counterparts – biomolecules. The study, published in Science, also reveals the atomic-level mechanisms behind nanoparticle self-assembly.

The findings from the lab of Chemistry Professor Rongchao Jin provide researchers with an important window into how nanoparticles form, and will help guide the construction of nanoparticles, including those that can be used in the fabrication of computer chips, creation of new materials, and development of new drugs and drug delivery devices.

Caption: By resolving the structure of Au246, Carnegie Mellon researchers were able to visualize its hierarchical assembly into artificial solid. Credit: Carnegie Mellon University

A Jan.  23, 2017 CMU news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“Most people think that nanoparticles are simple things, because they are so small. But when we look at nanoparticles at the atomic level, we found that they are full of wonders,” said Jin.

Nanoparticles are typically between 1 and 100 nanometers in size. Particles on the larger end of the nanoscale are harder to create precisely. Jin has been at the forefront of creating precise gold nanoparticles for a decade, first establishing the structure of an ultra-small Au25 nanocluster and then working on larger and larger ones. In 2015, his lab used X-ray crystallography to establish the structure of an Au133 nanoparticle and found that it contained complex, self-organized patterns that mirrored patterns found in nature.

In the current study, they sought to find out the mechanisms that caused these patterns to form. The researchers, led by graduate student Chenjie Zeng, established the structure of Au246, one of the largest and most complex nanoparticles created by scientists to-date and the largest gold nanoparticle to have its structure determined by X-ray crystallography. Au246 turned out to be an ideal candidate for deciphering the complex rules of self- assembly because it contains an ideal number of atoms and surface ligands and is about the same size and weight as a protein molecule.

Analysis of Au246’s structure revealed that the particles had much more in common with biomolecules than size. They found that the ligands in the nanoparticles self-assembled into rotational and parallel patterns that are strikingly similar to the patterns found in proteins’ secondary structure. This could indicate that nanoparticles of this size could easily interact with biological systems, providing new avenues for drug discovery.

The researchers also found that Au246 particles form by following two rules. First, they maximize the interactions between atoms, a mechanism that had been theorized but not yet seen. Second the nanoparticles match symmetric surface patterns, a mechanism that had not been considered previously. The matching, which is similar to puzzle pieces coming together, shows that the components of the particle can recognize each other by their patterns and spontaneously assemble into the highly ordered structure of a nanoparticle.

“Self-assembly is an important way of construction in the nanoworld. Understanding the rules of self-assembly is critical to designing and building up complex nanoparticles with a wide-range of functionalities,” said Zeng, the study’s lead author.

In future studies, Jin hopes to push the crystallization limits of nanoparticles even farther to larger and larger particles. He also plans to explore the particles’ electronic and catalytic power.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Emergence of hierarchical structural complexities in nanoparticles and their assembly by Chenjie Zeng, Yuxiang Chen, Kristin Kirschbaum, Kelly J. Lambright, Rongchao Jin. Science  23 Dec 2016: Vol. 354, Issue 6319, pp. 1580-1584 DOI: 10.1126/science.aak9750

This paper is behind a paywall.

Reliable findings on the presence of synthetic (engineered) nanoparticles in bodies of water

An Aug. 29, 2016 news item on Nanowerk announces research into determining the presence of engineered (synthetic) nanoparticles in bodies of water,

For a number of years now, an increasing number of synthetic nanoparticles have been manufactured and incorporated into various products, such as cosmetics. For the first time, a research project at the Technical University of Munich and the Bavarian Ministry of the Environment provides reliable findings on their presence in water bodies.

An Aug. 29, 2016 Technical University of Munich (TUM) press release, which originated the news item, provides more information,

Nanoparticles can improve the properties of materials and products. That is the reason why an increasing number of nanoparticles have been manufactured over the past several years. The worldwide consumption of silver nanoparticles is currently estimated at over 300 metric tons. These nanoparticles have the positive effect of killing bacteria and viruses. Products that are coated with these particles include refrigerators and surgical instruments. Silver nanoparticles can even be found in sportswear. This is because the silver particles can prevent the smell of sweat by killing the bacteria that cause it.

Previously, it was unknown whether and in what concentration these nanoparticles enter the environment and e.g. enter bodies of water. If they do, this poses a problem. That is because the silver nanoparticles are toxic to numerous aquatic organisms, and can upset sensitive ecological balances.

Analytical challenge

In the past, however, nanoparticles have not been easy to detect. That is because they measure only 1 to 100 nanometers across [nanoparticles may be larger than 100nm or smaller than 1nm but the official definitions usually specify up to 100nm although some definitions go up to 1000nm] – a nanometer is a millionth of a millimeter. “In order to know if a toxicological hazard exists, we need to know how many of these particles enter the environment, and in particular bodies of water”, explains Michael Schuster, Professor for Analytical Chemistry at the TU Munich.

This was an analytical challenge for the researchers charged with solving the problem on behalf of the Bavarian Ministry of the Environment. In order to overcome this issue, they used a well-known principle that utilizes the effect of surfactants to separate and concentrate the particles. “Surfactants are also found in washing and cleaning detergents”, explains Schuster. “Basically, what they do is envelop grease and dirt particles in what are called micelles, making it possible for them to float in water.” One side of the surfactant is water-soluble, the other fat-soluble. The fat-soluble ends collect around non-polar, non-water soluble compounds such as grease or around particles, and “trap” them in a micelle. The water-soluble, polar ends of the surfactants, on the other hand, point towards the water molecules, allowing the microscopically small micelle to float in water.

A box of sugar cubes in the Walchensee lake

The researchers applied this principle to the nanoparticles. “When the micelles surrounding the particles are warmed slightly, they start to clump”, explains Schuster. This turns the water cloudy. Using a centrifuge, the surfactants and the nanoparticles trapped in them can then be separated from the water. This procedure is called cloud point extraction. The researchers then use the surfactants that have been separated out in this manner – which contain the particles in an unmodified, but highly concentrated form – to measure how many silver nanoparticles are present. To do this, they use a highly sensitive atomic spectrometer configured to only detect silver. In this manner, concentrations in a range of less than one nanogram per liter can be detected. To put this in perspective, this would be like detecting a box of sugar cubes that had dissolved in the Walchensee lake.

With the help of this analysis procedure, it is possible to gain new insight into the concentration of nanoparticles in drinking and waste water, sewage sludge, rivers, and lakes. In Bavaria, the measurements yielded good news: The concentrations measured in the water bodies were extremely low. In was only in four of the 13 Upper Bavarian lakes examined that the concentration even exceeded the minimum detection limit of 0.2 nanograms per liter. No measured value exceeded 1.3 nanograms per liter. So far, no permissible values have been established for silver nanoparticles.

Representative for watercourses, the Isar river was examined from its source to its mouth at around 30 locations. The concentration of silver nanoparticles was also measured in the inflow and outflow of sewage treatment plants. The findings showed that at least 94 percent of silver nanoparticles are filtered out by the sewage treatment plants.

Unfortunately, the researchers have not published their results.