PRESS RELEASE: Scientists reveal the effect of nano-plastics on model cell membranes

Four hundred million tons! This is the amount of plastic produced each year in the world, and a considerable percentage is made of disposable products that might end up in the environment. Plastics, in fact, constitute up to 80% of marine litter. Micro- and nano-sized plastic fragments are a subtle but severe menace to animal health, including human beings. Professor Elena Del Favero (University of Milan), Professor Giulia Rossi (University of Genoa), and colleagues investigated the effect of polystyrene on model cell membranes, one of the most widely employed plastics in many industrial sectors, from food packaging to construction. The study was realised with the contribution of the Central European Research Infrastructure Consortium (CERIC-ERIC), and it was published in the Journal of Colloid and Interface Science.

“Our study underlines that nano-plastics can perturb the membrane structure and dynamics”, says Prof. Rossi. The authors combined a broad spectrum of experimental techniques with computer simulations to understand the effect of polystyrene on a cell membrane model. For instance, X-ray Scattering experiments realised at the Austrian CERIC Partner Facility at the Elettra synchrotron in Trieste (Italy) revealed the structural properties of the model membrane in the presence of polystyrene. Such a result was confirmed by computer-driven simulations and calorimetry calculations. Moreover, molecular dynamics simulations and neutron scattering experiments indicated the polystyrene’s effect on the lipid mobility and membrane’s mechanical properties. “Such combination of experimental and computational approaches demonstrated that doping-doses of polystyrene interact with model membranes, affecting in a concentration-dependent fashion their architecture and dynamics”, says Prof. Del Favero.

This study is part of an increasing body of evidence demonstrating how plastic fragments affect the environment, as well as their penetration into several food chains even in the most remote areas of the world, such as Antarctica, as shown in another study realised with the contribution of CERIC-ERIC. “The potential harm caused by the incorporation of micro- and nano-plastics should not be underestimated. Further studies are fundamental to assess the effects of plastics covered by organic and inorganic molecules that crowd the water environments, as well as their effect on membrane proteins, fundamental for several cell functions”, concludes Prof. Rossi.

CERIC-ERIC is a multidisciplinary research infrastructure established by the European Commission in 2014. It’s open to users in all fields of materials, biomaterials, and nanotechnology. With a single-entry point to some of the leading national research infrastructures in 8 European countries, it allows structural investigation, analysis and synthesis of materials, using photon-, electron-, neutron- and ion-based techniques. CERIC enables the delivery of innovative solutions to societal challenges in the fields of energy, health, food, cultural heritage and more.

ORIGINAL ARTICLE: Polystyrene perturbs the structure, dynamics, and mechanical properties of DPPC membranes: An experimental and computational study. Bochicchio D., Cantu L., Cadario M. V., Palchetti L., Natali F., Monticelli L., Rossi G., & Del Favero E., Journal of Colloid and Interface Science, 2022. LINK.



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