How buckyballs hurt cells

May 27, 2008

A new study into the potential health hazards of the revolutionary nano-sized particles known as ‘buckyballs’ predicts that the molecules are easily absorbed into animal cells, providing a possible explanation for how the molecules could be toxic to humans and other organisms.

Using computer simulations, University of Calgary biochemist Peter Tieleman, post-doctoral fellow Luca Monticelli and colleagues modeled the interaction between carbon-60 molecules and cell membranes and found that the particles are able to enter cells by permeating their membranes without causing mechanical damage. Their results are published in the current Advance Online Publication of Nature Nanotechnology, the world’s leading nanotechnology journal.

“Buckyballs are already being made on a commercial scale for use in coatings and materials but we have not determined their toxicity,” said Tieleman, a Senior Scholar of the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research who specializes in membrane biophysics and biocomputing. “There are studies showing that they can cross the blood-brain barrier and alter cell functions, which raises a lot of questions about their toxicity and what impact they may have if released into the environment.”

Tieleman’s team used the high-powered computing resources of WestGrid, a partnership between 14 Western Canadian institutions, to run some of the cell behaviour simulations. The resulting model showed that buckyball particles are able to dissolve in cell membranes, pass into cells and re-form particles on the other side where they can cause damage to cells.

Spherical carbon-60 molecules were discovered in 1985, leading to the Nobel Prize in physics for researchers from the University of Sussex and Rice University who named the round, hollow molecules Buckminsterfullerene after renowned American architect Richard Buckminster Fuller, the inventor of the geodesic dome.

Popularly known as buckyballs, carbon-60 molecules form naturally in minute quantities under extreme conditions such as lightning strikes. They can also be produced artificially as spheres or oblong-shaped balls, known as fullerenes, and can be used to produce hollow fibers known as carbon nanotubes. Both substances are considered to be promising materials in the field of nanotechnology because of their incredible strength and heat resistance. Potential applications include the production of industrial materials, drug delivery systems, fuel cells and even cosmetics.

In recent years, much research has focused on the potential health and environmental impacts of buckyballs and carbon nanotubes. Fullerenes have been shown to cause brain damage in fish and inhaling carbon nanotubes results in lung damage similar to that caused by asbestos.

“Buckyballs commonly form into clumps that could easily be inhaled by a person as dust particles,” Tieleman said. “How they enter cells and cause damage is still poorly understood but our model shows a possible mechanism for how this might occur.”

Source: University of Calgary

Explore further: A huge chunk of a tardigrade's genome comes from foreign DNA

Related Stories

A huge chunk of a tardigrade's genome comes from foreign DNA

November 23, 2015

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have sequenced the genome of the nearly indestructible tardigrade, the only animal known to survive the extreme environment of outer space, and found something ...

New method for imaging marmoset brains

November 19, 2015

Researchers at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan have developed a new system for imaging the activity of individual neurons in the marmoset brain. Published in Cell Reports, the study shows how amplifying genetically ...

Cells starved of oxygen and nutrients condense their DNA

November 9, 2015

Scientists at the Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB) have been able to see, for the first time, the dramatic changes that occur in the DNA of cells that are starved of oxygen and nutrients. This starved state is typical ...

Recommended for you

Mathematicians identify limits to heat flow at the nanoscale

November 24, 2015

How much heat can two bodies exchange without touching? For over a century, scientists have been able to answer this question for virtually any pair of objects in the macroscopic world, from the rate at which a campfire can ...

New sensor sends electronic signal when estrogen is detected

November 24, 2015

Estrogen is a tiny molecule, but it can have big effects on humans and other animals. Estrogen is one of the main hormones that regulates the female reproductive system - it can be monitored to track human fertility and is ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.