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pH-Dependent Toxicity of High Aspect Ratio ZnO Nanowires in Macrophages Due to Intracellular Dissolution

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Multi-Imaging Centre, Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience/Anatomy Building, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB3 2DY, United Kingdom
Department of Materials, Imperial College London, Exhibition Road, London SW7 2AZ, United Kingdom
§ MRC Human Nutrition Research, Elsie Widdowson Laboratory, Fulbourn Road, Cambridge CB1 9NL, United Kingdom
* Address correspondence to [email protected]
Cite this: ACS Nano 2010, 4, 11, 6767–6779
Publication Date (Web):October 15, 2010
Copyright © 2010 American Chemical Society

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    High-aspect ratio ZnO nanowires have become one of the most promising products in the nanosciences within the past few years with a multitude of applications at the interface of optics and electronics. The interaction of zinc with cells and organisms is complex, with both deficiency and excess causing severe effects. The emerging significance of zinc for many cellular processes makes it imperative to investigate the biological safety of ZnO nanowires in order to guarantee their safe economic exploitation. In this study, ZnO nanowires were found to be toxic to human monocyte macrophages (HMMs) at similar concentrations as ZnCl2. Confocal microscopy on live cells confirmed a rise in intracellular Zn2+ concentrations prior to cell death. In vitro, ZnO nanowires dissolved very rapidly in a simulated body fluid of lysosomal pH, whereas they were comparatively stable at extracellular pH. Bright-field transmission electron microscopy (TEM) showed a rapid macrophage uptake of ZnO nanowire aggregates by phagocytosis. Nanowire dissolution occurred within membrane-bound compartments, triggered by the acidic pH of the lysosomes. ZnO nanowire dissolution was confirmed by scanning electron microscopy/energy-dispersive X-ray spectrometry. Deposition of electron-dense material throughout the ZnO nanowire structures observed by TEM could indicate adsorption of cellular components onto the wires or localized zinc-induced protein precipitation. Our study demonstrates that ZnO nanowire toxicity in HMMs is due to pH-triggered, intracellular release of ionic Zn2+ rather than the high-aspect nature of the wires. Cell death had features of necrosis as well as apoptosis, with mitochondria displaying severe structural changes. The implications of these findings for the application of ZnO nanowires are discussed.

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    Figure S1 contains three confocal live imaging movies showing the rise of intracellular, free Zn2+ in HMMs prior to cell death. This material is available free of charge via the Internet at

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