Tag Archives: earthworms

Creeping gel does ‘The Loco-Motion’

Now it’s the creeping gel’s turn, from an Oct. 24, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Directed motion seems simple to us, but the coordinated interplay of complex processes is needed, even for seemingly simple crawling motions of worms or snails. By using a gel that periodically swells and shrinks, researchers developed a model for the waves of muscular contraction and relaxation involved in crawling. As reported in the journal Angewandte Chemie, they were able to produce two types of crawling motion by using inhomogeneous irradiation.


Courtesy: Angewandte Chemie

Courtesy: Angewandte Chemie

An Oct. 24, 2016 Angewandte Chemie (Wiley) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains further,

Crawling comes from waves that travel through muscle. These waves can travel in the same direction as the animal is crawling (direct waves), from the tail end toward the head, or in the opposite direction (retrograde waves), from the head toward the tail. While land snails use the former type of wave, earthworms and limpets use the latter. Chitons (polyplacophora) can switch between both types of movement.

With the aid of a chemical model in the form of a self-oscillating gel, researchers working with Qingyu Gao at the China University of Mining and Technology (Jiangsu, China) and Irving R. Epstein at Brandeis University (Waltham, Massachusetts, USA) have been able to answer some of the many questions about these crawling processes.

A gel is a molecular network with liquid bound in the gaps. In this case, the liquid contains all of the ingredients needed for an oscillating chemical reaction (“chemical clock”). The researchers incorporated one component of their reaction system into the network: a ruthenium complex. During the reaction, the ruthenium periodically switches between two oxidation states, Ru2+ and Ru3+. This switch changes the gel so that in one state it can hold more liquid than the other, so the gel swells and shrinks periodically. Like the chemical clock, these regions propagate in waves, similar to the waves of muscle contractions in crawling.

The complex used in this gel also changes oxidation state when irradiated with light. When the right half of the gel is irradiated more strongly than the left, the waves move from right to left, i.e., from a high- to a low-frequency region of gel oscillations. Once the difference in intensity of irradiation reaches a certain threshold, it causes a wormlike motion of the gel from left to right, retrograde wave locomotion. If the difference is increased further, the gel comes to a stop. A further increase in the difference causes the gel to move again, but in the opposite direction, i.e., direct wave locomotion. The nonuniform illumination plays a role analogous to that of anchoring segments and appendages (such as limbs and wings) during cell migration and animal locomotion, which control the direction of locomotion by strengthening direct movement and/or inhibiting the opposite movement.

By using computational models, the researchers were able to describe these processes. Within the gel, there are regions where pulling forces predominate; pushing forces predominate in other areas. Variations in the intensity of the irradiation lead to different changes in the friction forces and the tensions in the gel. When these effects are added up, it is possible to predict in which direction a particular grid element of the gel will move.

One important finding from this model: special changes in the viscoelastic properties of the slime excreted by the snails and worms as they crawl are not required for locomotion, whether retrograde or direct.

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

Retrograde and Direct Wave Locomotion in a Photosensitive Self-Oscillating Gel by Lin Ren, Weibing She, Prof. Dr. Qingyu Gao, Dr. Changwei Pan, Dr. Chen Ji, and Prof. Dr. Irving R. Epstein. Angewandte Chemie International Edition DOI: 10.1002/anie.201608367 Version of Record online: 13 OCT 2016

© 2016 Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

For anyone curious about the song, there’s this from its Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

“The Loco-Motion” is a 1962 pop song written by American songwriters Gerry Goffin and Carole King. “The Loco-Motion” was originally written for Dee Dee Sharp but Sharp turned the song down.[1] The song is notable for appearing in the American Top 5 three times – each time in a different decade, performed by artists from three different cultures: originally African American pop singer Little Eva in 1962 (U.S. No. 1);[2] then American band Grand Funk Railroad in 1974 (U.S. No. 1);[3] and finally Australian singer Kylie Minogue in 1988 (U.S. No. 3).[4]

The song is a popular and enduring example of the dance-song genre: much of the lyrics are devoted to a description of the dance itself, usually done as a type of line dance. However, the song came before the dance.

“The Loco-Motion” was also the second song to reach No. 1 by two different musical acts. The earlier song to do this was “Go Away Little Girl”, also written by Goffin and King. It is one of only nine songs to achieve this

I had not realized this song had such a storied past; there’s a lot more about it in the Wikipedia entry.

Toxicity, nanoparticles, soil, and Europe’s NANO-ECOTOXICITY Project

I have featured pieces on nanoparticles, toxicity, and soil in the past (this Aug. 15, 2011 posting about Duke University’s mesocosm project is probably the most relevant) but this study is the first one I’ve seen focusing on earthworms. From the Sept. 23, 2013 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

From the clothes and make-up we wear to the electronic devices we use every day, nanotechnology is becoming ubiquitous. But while industry has mastered the production of such materials, little is known about their fate once their service life comes to an end. The NANO-ECOTOXICITY project looked into their impact on soil organisms.

The Sept. 23, 2013 CORDIS (European Commission Community Research and Development Information Service) news release, which originated the new item, offers a Q&A (Question and Answer) with the project research leader,

Dr Maria Diez-Ortiz, research leader of the NANO-ECOTOXICITY project, tells us about her research findings and how she expects them to help increase knowledge and shape tools allowing for standard environmental hazard and risk-assessment methodologies.

What is the background of the NANO-ECOTOXICITY project?

Nanotechnology is based on the idea that, by engineering the size and shape of materials at the scale of atoms, i.e. nanometres (nm), distinct optical, electronic, or magnetic properties can be tuned to produce novel properties of commercial value. However, there is an obvious concern that such novel properties may also lead to novel behaviour when interacting with biological organisms, and thus to potentially novel toxic effects.

Since nanoparticles (NPs) are similar in size to viruses, their uptake by and transport through tissues are based on mechanisms distinct from those of molecular uptake and transport. Therefore, there is concern that standard toxicological tests may not be applicable or reliable in relation to NPs, hence compromising current risk-assessment procedures.

The majority of research on nano-safety in the environment has so far focused on the aquatic environment. Current research on environmental fate, however, indicates that soils will become the biggest environmental sink for nanoparticles. Following their entry into liquid waste streams, nanoparticles will pass through wastewater-treatment. processes, ending up in waste sludge which may accumulate in the agricultural land where this sludge is often applied.

What are the main objectives of the project?

This project deals with the toxicokinetics – that is, the rate at which a chemical enters a body and affects it – of metal nanoparticles coming into contact with soil-dwelling organisms. The aim is to determine NPs’ fate and effects in terrestrial ecosystems by means of case studies with zinc oxide and silver NPs, which represent different fate kinetics.

The project’s main objectives are to assess the toxicity of metal nanoparticles in soils in the short and long term; the main route of exposure for earthworms and whether it differs from those of ionic metals; and, finally, the influence of the exposure media on metal nanoparticle toxicity.

What is new or innovative about the project and the way it is addressing these issues?

We have been running a long-term study where soils with AgNP [silver nanoparticles] were stored and left to age for up to a year; their toxicity was tested at the start and after three, seven and 12 months of ageing. The results showed that silver toxicity increased over time, meaning that short-term standard toxicity tests may underestimate the environmental risk of silver nanoparticles.

In parallel, we found that organisms exposed to silver nanoparticles in short-term studies accumulated higher silver concentrations than organisms that were exposed to the same mass concentration of ionic silver. However, these NP exposed organisms actually suffered lower toxic effects. This observation contradicts the prevailing assumption in toxicology that the internalised concentration is directly related to chemical concentration at the target site and hence to its toxicity. This observation creates a new paradigm for nano-ecotoxicology.

What is not yet known is whether the accumulated NP metal may in the longer-term ultimately become toxic (e.g. through dissolution and ion release) in cells and tissues where AgNPs may be stored. Should this occur, the high concentrations accumulated may ultimately result in greater long-term toxicity for NPs than for ionic forms. This may reveal these accumulated NPs as internalised ‘time bombs’ relevant to long-term effects and toxicity.

However, it has to be borne in mind that the redicted environmental concentrations resulting from current use of nanoparticles (e.g. results from EU projects like NANOFATE2) are many times smaller than those used in these studies, meaning that such accumulations of nanoparticle-related silver are unlikely to occur in the environment or, ultimately, in humans.

What difficulties did you encounter and how did you solve them?

The main problems encountered relate to the tracking of nanoparticles inside the tissues and soils, as both are complex matrices. The analysis of the particles is a challenge in itself, even when in water, but to get information about their state in these matrices often requires unrealistic exposure concentrations (due to low detection limits of the highly specialised techniques used for analysis) or extraction of the particles from the matrices, which could potentially change the state of the particles.

In this project, I travelled to University of Kentucky to work with Jason Unrine and used gentle water-based extractions of soil samples immediately before analysing them using ‘Field-flow fractionation’ and ‘Inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry’ to identify the state of nanoparticles in my aged soils.

To look at what form (speciation) of silver and zinc from the nanoparticle exposures could be found inside worms I collaborated with NANOFATE researchers at Cardiff University who fixed and thinly sectioned the worm tissues. I was lucky to be given the time to use specialist facilities like the UK’s Diamond Light Source synchrotron to investigate where and in what form the metals and potential nanoparticles could be found in these tissues.

The main challenge is that as soon as you take nanoparticles out of the manufacturers’ bottle they start changing, particularly when put into environments likes natural soils and waters, or even organisms. Therefore a lot of characterisation is needed during exposure to establish the state of the nanoparticles the organisms have been exposed to and how fast they are changing from pristine particles to dissolved ions, or particles with completely different surfaces.

Technical solutions to characterisation have been found during this short project, but this will remain a logistical challenge for many years to come as the analysis equipment is still very specialised and expensive and therefore not generally available.

What are the concrete results from the research so far?

The project has helped us draw various conclusions regarding the impact of NPs on the environment and how to assess them. First, we now know that soil acidity, or pH, influences the dissolution and toxicity of ZnO nanoparticles [zinc oxide].

Then, we found that toxicity of silver nanoparticles’ increases over time and that the particles’ coating affects their toxicity to soil invertebrates.

As previously mentioned, earthworms exposed to silver nanoparticles for 28 days accumulated higher silver concentrations than earthworms exposed to silver ions, without the excess silver from the nanoparticles having a toxic effect. [emphasis mine] Moreover, soil ingestion was identified as the main route of exposure to AgNP and ZnONP in earthworms.

How can industry and decision-makers ensure that nanomaterials do not impact our environment?

We hope that this project, and the larger EU project NANOFATE to which it is linked, will provide knowledge and tools enabling standard environmental-hazard and risk-assessment methodologies to be applied to engineered nanoparticles (ENPs) with just a few judicious modifications. The current systems and protocols for chemical risk assessment have been developed over decades, and where no novel toxic mechanisms exist, our results tend to say that nano fits in as long as we measure the right things and characterise realistic exposures properly.

Our research aims to determine the minimum methodological tweaks needed. So far everything indicates that the potential benefits from nanotechnology can be realised and managed safely alongside other chemicals. While we are fairly confident at this stage that ENPs impose no greater acute effects on important biological parameters – like reproduction – than their ionic forms, the NANO-ECOTOXICITY results demonstrate that we have some way to go before we can state loud and clear that we do not believe there is any novel low-level or long-term effect.

As for all chemicals, proving such a negative is impossible using short-term tests. We think the final conclusions by industry and regulators on safe use of nanoparticles should and will have to be made according to a ‘weight of evidence’ approach – proving there is a gap between predicted likely exposure levels and those levels seen to cause any effects or accumulations within ecosystem species.

What are the next topics for your research?

This project has finished but the next step for any other funding opportunity would be to address increasingly environmentally relevant exposure scenarios by analysing how nanoparticles modify in the environment and interact with living tissues and organisms at different trophic levels. I would like to investigate nanoparticle transformation and interactions in living tissues. To date, the studies that have identified this ‘excess’ accumulation of non-toxic metal loads in nanoparticleexposed organisms have only been short term.

Apart from the obviously increased food-chain transfer potential, is also not known whether, over the longer term, the accumulated NP-derived metal ultimately becomes toxic when present in tissues and cells. Such transformation and release of metal ions within tissues may ultimately result in greater longterm toxicity for NPs than for ionic forms.

Furthermore, I want to test exposures in a functioning model ecosystem including interspecific interactions and trophic transfer. Since interactions between biota and nanoparticles are relevant in natural soil systems, caution is needed when attempting to predict the ecological consequences of nanoparticles based on laboratory assays conducted with only a single species. In the presence of the full complement of biological components of soil systems, complex NPs may follow a range of pathways in which coatings may be removed and replaced with exudate materials. Studies to quantify the nature of these interactions are therefore needed to identify the fate, bioavailability and toxicity of realistic ‘non-pristine’ forms of NPs present in real soil environments.

New to me was the material about ageing silver nanoparticles and their increased toxicity over time. While this is an interesting piece of information it’s not necessarily all that useful. It seems even with their increased uptake compared to silver ions, silver nanoparticles (Diez-Ortiz doesn’t indicate whether or not * they tested variously aged silver nanoparticles) did not have toxic effects on the earthworms tested.

The NANO-ECOTOXICITY website doesn’t appear to exist anymore but you can find the NANOFATE (Nanoparticle Fate Assessment and Toxicity in the Environment) website here.

* ‘not’ removed to clarify meaning, Oct. 9, 2013. (Note: I had on Oct. 8, 2013 removed ‘not’ in a second place from the sentence in an attempt t o clarify the meaning and ended up not making any sense at all.) Please read Maria Diez-Ortiz in the Comments, as she clarifies matters in a way I could never hope to.

Using microwaves to test for carbon nanotube toxicity in soil

It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned soil or environmental testing for this this Oct. 19, 2012 news item by Karen Slyker on physorg.com, which highlights some research on environmental testing of carbon nanotubes, lets me redress the situation,

Industrial uses are growing, as are concerns that these novel nanomaterials may have negative or unintended effects on organisms and the environment. With this in mind, environmental toxicologists at Texas Tech are exploring the fate of CNTs in biological environments and their ability to accumulate in soil, plants or other organisms.

One recurring question has slowed these studies: How can anyone be certain the tiny CNTs are present in the given sample?

“It’s like a needle in a haystack,” Green said [Micah Green, assistant professor of chemical engineering]. “How can you prove the effects of the needle, if you’re not sure that it’s really in there?”

The impetus for the work initially began with a conversation between Green and Jaclyn Cañas, associate professor of environmental toxicology at The Institute for Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech. Cañas described the problem of detecting CNTs in crop samples. Green suggested that exposing samples to microwaves could reveal the presence of even trace quantities of nanotubes.

The Texas Technical University Oct. 19, 2012 news release (which originated the news item) provides more detail about the approach,

CNTs have the unusual property of evolving extreme amounts of heat upon exposure to microwaves, much more so than typical materials. In fact, nanotube powder will quickly and spontaneously ignite if placed in a conventional kitchen microwave. Green’s idea was to expose the sample to low-power microwaves and measure the resulting increase in temperature.

Mohammad Saed, an associate professor in electrical and computer engineering, joined the team to contribute his expertise in the area of microwave physics.

Together, the three research groups successfully built a testing apparatus and proved the concepts that microwave-based heating can quantify CNT loading inside a plant sample.

The team has refined its testing protocols and extended the scope from soil testing only to including earthworms,

Continued development of the device led to a double-blind test, where a student was given samples of a specified CNT loading but was not told what the concentration was. Graduate student Fahmida Irin was principally responsible for applying the method. The double-blind test successfully duplicated the true values, and was then applied to studying the uptake of nanotubes into alfalfa plant roots grown in soil spiked with nanotubes.

“Since we started the method, we have started collaborating with other groups as well to look at the presence of nanotubes in organisms like earthworms,” Green said.

The method was recently published in a paper entitled “Detection of carbon nanotubes in biological samples through microwave-induced heating” by Irin et al. in the journal Carbon.

I’m not quite sure how to take this research. They do mention that nanotube powder will ignite in a kitchen microwave. Here’s hoping the researchers have designed an apparatus that cannot accidentally ignite carbon nanotubes in soil, plants, or earthworms.