National Science Foundation     |     Directorate for Engineering  (ENG)
Division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental, & Transport Systems  (CBET)
CBET Award Achievements (Nuggets)
Notable Accomplishments from CBET Awards
Understanding Carbon Nanoassembly
Pu-Chun Ke    Clemson University

Background:  Currently, there are over 600 products on the market that are connected with nanotechnology.  With the number of such products being produced at an ever-increasing rate and with their inevitable discharge and evolution in the environment, it is especially disconcerting to realize that little is actually known about the fate, transport, modification, and accumulation of nanoparticles in biological and ecological settings.  There are currently no established sets of protocols for conducting accurate in vivo or in vitro investigations involving engineered nanoparticles.  This disparity has been recognized by NSF, NIH, and US EPA as evidenced by their roadmaps and calls for research on safe nanotechnology.  Three key questions must be addressed before such investigations may proceed:
    *  How do nanomaterials interact with biological and environmental systems?
    *  What new methodologies should be developed for examining these interactions?
    *  How do we update our education system to reflect the need of training new scientists and engineers at the new frontiers of science and technology?
These questions form the core motivations of this research.

    *  The Ke Team has discovered cell contraction in the presence of fullerene C70 nanoparticles coated with natural phenolic acid (Figure 1).  Such an observation suggests the physical contribution to the complex issue of nanotoxicity.
    *  The Ke Team has discovered the uptake of fullerene C70 nanoparticles by rice plants (Figure 2), and transmission of the nanoparticles through generational reproduction.  Mechanisms of such phenomena have been deciphered.

Pu Chun Ke 1
Figure 1.  Real-time interaction of fullerene C70 and HT-29 cells.  The cell membranes were labeled with lipophilic dye and their cross sections appeared as red "rings."  Over time the cells were mechanically contracted due to the mutual interaction between C70 nanoparticles [E. Salonen, S. Lin, M.L Reid, M.S. Allegood, X. Wang, A.M. Rao, I. Vattulainen, and P.C. Ke, Real-Time Translocation of Fullerene Reveals Cell Contraction, Small 4 (2008), 1986].
Credit for Figure 1:  Sijie Lin and Pu Chun Ke; Clemson University
Pu Chun Ke 2a
Pu Chun Ke 2b  
Figures 2a and 2b.  Uptake of C70 nanoparticles and their aggregation within a rice plant leaf cell.
Credit for Figures 2a & 2b:  JoAn Hudson, Sijie Lin, and Pu Chun Ke; Clemson University
This project addresses the NSF Strategic Outcome Goals, as described in the NSF Strategic Plan 2006-2011, as follows:
Primary Strategic Outcome Goal:      (1) Discovery:  This research aims to understand the fate of nanoparticles in biological systems and the environment.  It examines how aquatic organisms (brine shrimp, daphnia, algae), plant species (rice, pepper), and human mammalian cells respond to the integration of nanomaterials.  These responses are categorized from the whole organism level down to the cellular level using biophysical tools such as microscopy and spectroscopy.  To facilitate these studies, the aggregation and transformation of nanoparticles in the liquid phase are examined.  Cell contraction has been discovered when exposed to fullerene nanoparticles coated with phenolic acids.  Transmission of nanoparticles through multiple generations of plants has been shown as a robust phenomenon.  Such discoveries mark the first reports of the physical impacts of nanoparticles exerted on biological and ecological systems.
                                                                   (1) Discovery Category:
                                                                          - CAREER:  Faculty Early Career Program
                                                                          - Biological Sciences
                                                                          - Engineering Research
                                                                          - Mathematical & Physical Sciences

Secondary Strategic Outcome Goal:  (2) Learning:  This research has enabled students learning at the interfaces of biophysics, nanomaterials, biology, and environmental science and engineering.  Four graduate students and two undergraduate students from the Ke lab have participated in the research and collaborated with researchers and their students at Clemson and at Helsinki University of Technology in Finland.  This research has also advanced knowledge of the PI, his students, and their collaborators.
                                                                   (2) Learning Categories:
                                                                          - Undergraduate Education and Undergraduate Student Research
                                                                          - Graduate Education and Graduate Student Research
                                                                          - International Research Experiences for Undergrad & Graduate Students

In terms of Intellectual Merit, this work is notable because the research addresses the urgent need of understanding the promises as well as the risks of nanomaterials imposed on the environment and human health.  It examines from bottom up the fundamental aspects (binding, solubility, and biological uptake) of carbon nanomaterials in the liquid phase.  Results from these mechanistic studies will directly benefit our prediction and characterization of the transport, evolution (assembly and disassembly), and discharge (biomodification, internalization, and toxicity) of nanomaterials in biological and ecological systems.  Furthermore, this research is of great relevance to utilizing the physical, chemical, and morphological properties of nanomaterials for designing intra and extracellular sensors, and cell and tissue specific agent delivery transporters.

In terms of Broader Impacts, this work is notable because the research aims to benefit the safe development of nanotechnology and improve our awareness of the potential adverse effects of nanomaterials.  It will enhance multidisciplinary research and education in biophysical nanoscience and environmental science and engineering at Clemson University.  This research also signifies the strong support of the NSF for the research collaboration between the PI's lab and Helsinki University of Technology in Finland.  Such support will prove beneficial since Finland emphasizes nanoscience and education and protection of its largely intact natural environment.  So far research from this collaboration has been highlighted by leading US scientific media sources such as ScienceDaily and Nanowerk Spotlight, featured on the front page of Helsinki University of Technology website.  This research also fosters students training and exchange at the interfaces of physics, materials, biology, and environmental science and engineering, and updates the physics curriculum at Clemson University to reflect current trends in science.

This research is Transformative.  This research addresses the fate of nanoparticles in biological systems and the environment.  The endpoint of this research is to protect our environment and human health from the potential downside of new technologies.  With a better understanding of the behaviors of nanoparticles in living systems we will be able to design better ways of disposing nanomaterials into the environment or, alternatively, utilize engineered nanomaterials for biotechnology harnessing enhanced photosynthesis and adsorption of natural organic matter by plant species.

This research represents Broadening Participation.  This research is conducted in the Ke lab at Clemson University, a major research institute in the EPSCoR state of South Carolina.  Two female graduates and one female undergraduate student in the Ke lab, and one Fulbright scholar from Ecuador have participated in this research.  From the Finland side, one female undergraduate student has contributed to this research.

Existing or potential Societal Benefits of this research:  Nanotechnology R&D hit $13.5 billion in 2007.  Nanotechnology Drug Delivery Market Expected to Garner $700-$800 Billion by 2015.  Overall nanotechnology has great promises for developing novel nanoelectronics, molecular assemblies, nanocomposites, tissue engineering, and biomedicine.  Nanomaterials, owing to their unique mechanical, thermal, and electronic properties, will play an increasingly important role in the global economy.  A better understanding of nanomaterials will educate the general public about the myths, promises, and potential pitfalls of these new technologies.  It is expected that in the near future nanotechnology products will enter households in the forms of computer, TV monitors, and cell phones, and provide alternative and better power sources utilizing their conductivity and superconductivity.

Program Director:
Cindy Ekstein
CBET Program Director - Environmental Implications of Emerging Technologies
NSF Award Number:   0744040
Award Title:
  CAREER: Understanding Carbon Nanoassembly in Biological and Environmental Systems
PI Name:   Pu-Chun Ke
Institution Name:   Clemson University
Program Element Code:   1179
NSF Investments:
  - American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI)
- National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI)
- Environment (including the importance of fresh water and dynamics of water processes)
- Understanding Complex Biological Systems (including the interfaces of life, physical, and
    computational sciences)
CBET Nugget:

  FY 2009

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This Nugget was Updated on 7 October 2009.