Universiteit Leiden

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Nanoparticles: a wonder material with a downside?

Minute nanoparticles are bringing about a completely new industrial revolution. But little is known about the possible dangers to the food chain. An international group will be examining this issue, and Leiden researchers will be playing a key role.

Scratch-free lenses for glasses, effective sun creams and more effective cancer treatment. These are just a few of the advances that are due to the use of nanotechnology. Thanks to the use of minuscule particles at nanoscale, all kinds of applications are suddenly within reach that were previously  considered impossible. Companies in the European Union are front-runners in the use of this technology.  

From cell to food chain

It is unclear whether this wonder material has a drawback. It is quite possible because the minute particles can penetrate much further into the body than other materials. Leiden University and international partners are now going to carry out research on the possible harmful effects of long-term use of the material. They will be looking not only at individual cells or organisms, but also at complete food chains. This is the first systematic research on how nanoparticles transition from prey to predator.

13 million

‘It has already been established that organisms  do not suffer any damage from acute exposure to nanomaterial,' comments Martina Vijver, senior lecturer in Ecotoxicology. She coordinates the Leiden part of the PATROLS project, for  which a total of over 13 million euros of European funding is now available. 'But it is not clear what the effect is of long-term exposure to high doses. Asbestos was once praised as a wonder material, but in the long term this has proven to be an emormous mistake. We want to avoid making the same mistake by carrying out extensive research at an early stage.' 


While international researchers in the international consortium look at the lungs and liver, the Leiden researchers are studying the influence on digestion. They look at how the nanomaterial spreads by means of intestinal cells and bacteria. There are all kinds of ways of doing this: at molecular and cell level, but also in 3D cells and complete organisms, such as zebra fish. Vijver: ‘Finally, we look at complete ecosystems. In a kind of jam jar we reproduced a food chain, with algae, daphnia, dragon flies (see image) and the larvae of the zebrafish. We carefully monitor which animals eat one another and how the nanoparticles spread into the intestines and from there throughout the whole body of the animals, and whether that leads to health problems.’


Ultimately, the scientists in the team want to know more about the possible harmful effects of nanoparticles within the coming three and a half years. Based on this risk assessment, the European  Union can decide whether it is neccessary to introduce stricter legislation for the use of nanomaterials.  

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