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Your Environment. Your Health.

Jagged Graphene can Slice into Cell Membranes

cell diagram

The bottom corner of a piece of graphene penetrates a cell membrane. Rough edges and sharp corners can make graphene dangerous to human cells.
(Photo courtesy of Kane lab at Brown University)

Researchers from Brown University, including Superfund Research Program (SRP) grantees Robert Hurt, Ph.D., and Agnes Kane, Ph.D, have shown how tiny graphene microsheets could be big trouble for human cells.

The research shows that sharp corners and jagged protrusions along the edges of graphene sheets can easily pierce cell membranes. After the membrane is pierced, an entire graphene sheet can be pulled inside the cell where it may disrupt normal function. The new insight may be helpful in finding ways to minimize the potential toxicity of graphene, said Kane.

Discovered about a decade ago, graphene is a sheet of carbon just one atom thick. It is incredibly strong despite being so thin and has remarkable electronic, mechanical, and photonic properties. Commercial applications in small electronic devices, solar cells, batteries, and even medical devices are in development. However, not much is known about what effect these materials might have if they get inside the body either during the manufacturing process or during a product’s lifecycle.

“At a fundamental level, we want understand the features of these materials that are responsible for how they interact with cells,” Kane said. “If there’s some feature that is responsible for its toxicity, then maybe the engineers can engineer it out.”

The findings were published online July 9 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences . For more information about the research, visit the Brown University News Page .

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