A novel way to study long-term responses of cells, tissues, and entire organisms to various nanoparticulate exposures

Researchers at the University of Helsinki have discovered a molecular epigenetic mechanism, common to several species throughout the tree of life, which mediates long-term cellular responses to particulate matter such as air pollution.

The epigenetic response is common to many types of particulate exposure, and found in many organisms. 

Our research offers a promising step towards a more comprehensive understanding of the impacts of particulate matter, including viruses, on biological systems and the environment, while contributing to the development of faster and more reliable toxicity tests which are closer to planetary health models,” summarizes Professor Dario Greco from the University of Helsinki.

Predicting the long-term effects of nanomaterial exposure

It is already well known that exposure to environmental factors contributes to disease susceptibility by impacting the epigenome.

“We discovered a novel epigenetic mechanism underlying the response to nanoparticulate exposure in multiple organisms. Our discovery offers a novel way to study long-term responses of cells, tissues, and entire organisms to many particulate exposures,” says Greco.

The possibility that nanoparticles could somehow epigenetically re-program biological systems provides an additional dimension to assess their impact on health and the environment.

“In this sense, our results highlight the need to correctly identify chronic effects of nanoparticles’ intentional and unintentional exposure, with possibly important epidemiological implications,” explains Greco.

One step closer to planetary health

The findings of Greco’s research group revealed that a wide range of species across the tree of life respond to particulate exposure by activating molecular regulations mediated by an ancestral epigenetic mechanism that is also present in non-specialized cells and simpler organisms.

According to Greco, this is an important step towards closing the scientific dichotomy, which thus far has focused on either human or environmental implications of the engineered nanomaterials production. Greco’s new discovery embraces the interconnectedness and interdependence of the health of humans, animals, and the environment, towards a planetary health model.

Assessing biological responses to nanomaterials requires faster and more reliable methods

Both the size and composition of nanoparticles give them unique properties, distinct from other chemicals.

Currently, toxicologists must test each nanomaterial individually to evaluate its health and environmental implications, but the available tests are species-specific and focus mainly on acute responses. With the increasingly widespread use of – and exposure to – nanoparticles in everyday life, faster and more reliable methods are needed to assess their potential toxicity across multiple species, and to determine the longer-term consequences.

“Our research helps to fill this gap in the field, paving the way for a new generation of tests that can simultaneously investigate the impact of nanoparticles across species, contributing to the reduction of animal experimentation and streamlining the process to multiple engineered nanomaterials with disparate physicochemical characteristics,” Greco highlights. 

Original article 

del Giudice G, Serra A, Saarimäki LA, Kotsis K, Rouse I, Colibaba SA, Jagiello K, Mikolajczyk A, Fratello M, Papadiamantis AG, Sanabria N, Annala ME, Morikka J, Kinaret PAS, Voyiatzis E, Melagraki G, Afantitis A, Tämm K, Puzyn T, Gulumian M, Lobaskin V, Lynch I, Federico A, Greco D. An Ancestral Molecular Response to Nanomaterial Particulates. Nature Nanotechnology. 2023. DOI https://doi.org/10.1038/s41565-023-01393-4

Particulate matter exposure

Particulate matter exposure is nothing new to living organisms – they have been exposed to particulate matter for eons, e.g. from volcanoes eruptions. However, modern human-made nanoparticles present unprecedentedly persistent exposure, especially through air pollution. How do cells and organisms readjust to this changing environment?

Richard Feynman's 1959 lecture “There is plenty of room in the bottom” initiated the field of nanotechnology by inviting colleagues to manipulate materials at the nanoscale level. Currently, nanomaterials between 1 and 100 nm are widely used in products, but their potential risks, along with appropriate assessment methods, are still uncertain.

Epigenetics and epigenome

The field of epigenetics studies how the environment can alter the function of organisms’ genes without changing their underlying sequence.

The term epigenome is derived from the Greek word epi which literally means "above" the genome. The epigenome consists of chemical compounds that modify, or mark, the genome in a way that tells it what to do, where to do it, and when to do it. Different cells have different epigenetic marks. These epigenetic marks, which are not part of the DNA itself, can be passed on from cell to cell as cells divide, and from one generation to the next. (Source: https://www.genome.gov/genetics-glossary/Epigenome)

This research is basic research, which is the foundation of all scientific research at the university. Basic research is the study of the phenomenon or activity of something, and therefore increases scientific understanding of the subject. Basic research does not lead directly to an application in everyday life, but it can lead to a scientific breakthrough.