by David Gutierrez
Nanoparticles can adhere to the bodies of flying insects, which may then transport the potentially dangerous particles long distances, according to a new study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
Nanotechnology concerns the manipulation and manufacture of particles on the scale of single atoms or molecules. So-called “nanoparticles” are so tiny that they may behave in ways completely different than the same substances on a larger scale.
“Rapid growth in nanomaterial manufacturing is raising concerns about potential adverse effects on the environment,” the researchers write. “Scale is of critical importance in biological function, and we can expect a host of unique interactions between living organisms and engineered nanoparticles that have not been present in the natural environment during our evolutionary history.”
Prior studies have found that a variety of nanoparticles may pose toxic and other harmful effects, moving through cellular membranes and past other bodily defenses with ease. Few studies have looked directly at how the particles affect whole organisms, however.
“Nanoparticle contact with intact organisms in the wild may lead to different biological responses than those observed in laboratory cell-based toxicity assays,” the researchers write. “In nature, the scale and chemistry of nanoparticles coupled with the surface properties, texture, and behaviors of the organisms will influence biologically significant exposure and ultimate toxicity.”
In the current study, researchers exposed both adult and larval fruit flies to carbon nanoparticles just over 1/5,000th the width of a human hair. While larvae were apparently unaffected by consuming food containing the particles, adult flies became incapacitated or died when the particles “adhered extensively to fly surfaces and overwhelmed natural grooming mechanisms.” More notably, the researchers observed the transfer of nanoparticles between contaminated and uncontaminated flies, raising the specter that a spill from a nanoparticle manufacturing facility could easily lead to the spread of nanoparticles throughout the environment.
Currently there is no regulation of nanotechnology in the United States, and nanoparticles are already used in the manufacture of products as varied as sporting equipment, sunscreens and other cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and electronics.