Nanotechnology Center

September 23, 2008


NSF and EPA fund 5-year project to identify toxicity issues, educate public, prevent problems


Bren School faculty and colleagues at UCSB, UCLA, and other universities within the UC system and beyond will play key roles in a 5-year, $24 million nanotechnology risk-assessment project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The UC Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (UC CEIN) will be the nation’s first such large-scale study of the potential ecological effects of nanomaterial forms.

Headquartered at UCLA, the UC CEIN will have as its two pillars teams of researchers at UCLA and UCSB. UCLA professor Andre Nel, who will serve as center director, said of the collaboration, “I look forward to interacting with the distinguished faculty at UCSB on a nationally important and exciting endeavor that reflects the excellent environmental science at UCSB.”

Bren School professor Arturo Keller will be the associate director, working in collaboration with other UCSB faculty. Bren professor Patricia Holden and associate professor Hunter Lenihan will lead two of the seven Integrated Research Groups. They’ll collaborate with UCSB Environmental Studies (ES) professor and chair Josh Schimel and ES professor William Freudenburg; and Barbara Herr Harthorn, associate professor of Feminist Studies and director of the NSF Center for Nanotechnology in Society at UCSB (CNS-UCSB), who will also lead an Integrated Research Group. Other UCSB project researchers include Roger Nisbet, professor and vice chair, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology (EEMB), and EEMB assistant professor Bradley Cardinale; Galen Stucky, professor, Chemistry and Material Research Labs.

Funding for the center is part of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), a multi-agency federal program created to encourage development of nanotechnology in the U.S. economy.

“The NSF and the EPA jointly initiated this research program because the government has too little scientific basis to determine regulatory policy in this area right now,” said UCSB Vice Chancellor of Research Mike Witherell. “A powerful team of researchers from UCLA and UCSB developed a compelling proposal showing how they would cover the broad landscape of research issues.”

“We are so proud of Arturo, Trish, and Hunter. It's great seeing the Bren School and UCSB so well represented in this important project,” said Bren School Dean Ernst von Weizsäcker. “As a practical, solution-focused collaboration involving cooperation across several disciplines, the UC CEIN is a perfect example of the best kind of environmental science and research.”

The pace of nanotechnology development is outpacing what is known about potential risks of synthesized nanoparticles, which are found in a variety of commercial products, according to Patricia Holden. With new engineered nanoparticles emerging at a rapid and accelerating rate, scientists are only now beginning to study how they behave in the environment, with an eye to preventing problems of the kind encountered with asbestos.

“The field is changing so rapidly and the landscape of different particles is nearly infinite,” says Holden, who will lead a research group investigating cellular interactions of nanomaterials and ecological effects in soils. “We need to rationally but rapidly approach this new field: rationally in a way that distinguishes effects of engineered versus natural nanomaterials, but rapidly to deliver guidance into the future for environmentally responsible synthesis.”

“We want to know how nanoparticles bond with other particles, how long they last, if and how they accumulate, how they move through the environment, and how and at what levels of concentration they might affect living things,” says Arturo Keller, who will lead a research group investigating the fate and transport of nanoparticles in water.

“NSF and EPA decided to look at these questions,” Keller adds. “Nanotechnology started to pick up in the 1990s, and now it’s beginning to explode. Yet, we have very little information about what happens to the nanoparticles when they get into the environment. We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past.”

“This is also an excellent opportunity to develop truly interdisciplinary ecotoxicology science,” says Hunter Lenihan. “Integrating environmental chemistry, biochemistry, and biomedicine into our approaches to the ecotoxicology of nanoparticles will advance scientific knowledge and our ability to manage nanotechnology safely.” 

The center has been organized into seven integrated research groups (IRGs), each with a particular focus, as follows.

IRG 1 – Nanoparticle Synthesis: Led by Eric Hoek at UCLA, a group of about a dozen chemists and engineers from UCLA and UCSB, including Galen Stucky, will synthesize nanoparticles in their laboratories. They will work with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Molecular Foundry in using high-throughput experimentation to synthesize more extensive libraries of particles for the toxicology and fate studies, and they will write a dossier for each synthesis, characterizing the nanoparticles in terms of size, surface area, surface configuration, etc. Materials will also be acquired from industry, but the synthesized particles will allow for custom-designing features that are expected to cause specific effects, then testing for those effects directly in laboratory experiments.

“Working with Lawrence Berkeley and others, we can manufacture the nanoparticles to our specifications,” says Holden. “We will develop hypotheses for how nanoparticles affect different cells, and work within the UC CEIN to manufacture particles that could have those hypothetical effects. Then we can test the particles to see if we’re right. With that feedback, we can learn the linkage between a given particle’s characteristics and its effects, confirm and develop the linkage using additional targeting syntheses, and refine rapid assays to screen for those effects.”

In order to start quickly while particles are being synthesized, Keller explains, the group will work with several existing, commercial “reference” materials that are already available for some of the most interesting applications.

IRG 2 – Cellular and organismal effects: Led by Holden, the group will conduct experiments to learn how particles cause effects at the molecular, cellular, organ, and system levels in organisms such as bacteria, plants, bivalves, and mammals. Working across a range of particles and biological systems, the researchers expect to link specific nanoparticle characteristics to generalizable cellular outcomes and responses. In this way, they hope to reveal paradigms for how nanoparticles affect organisms under a wide spectrum of conditions.

IRG 3 – Populations & Communities: Hunter Lenihan explains that his group will conduct research on populations, communities, and ecosystems, studying bacteria that live in soils, freshwater algae, invertebrate grazers, arthropods (which eat algae) and fish, which eat the grazers.

 “We’ll explore how nanomaterial contaminants affect the performance of individual organisms, including their reproduction, growth, and survival,” Lenihan says. “The effort is closely related to the IRG 2 research, which should allow us to make predictions about what we’ll see in whole organisms, extrapolated from what occurs at the cellular level. For example, we’ll examine the effects and the accumulation of nanaoparticles within the food web of aquatic environments: What happens to individual organisms that are exposed to nanomaterials, and do changes at the individual level influence species interactions and the dynamics of whole food webs? Do exposed mussels filter fewer phytoplankton if the phytoplankton are contaminated, a scenario that could lead to eutrophication. What happens to lobsters that eat contaminated mussels? Do the nanomaterials bioaccumulate and/or biomagnfiy?”

IRG 4 – Fate & Transport: Using an experimental approach, as opposed to modeling, Arturo Keller’s group will study how nanoparticles move through water, soil and sediments, how long they endure, how quickly they degrade, etc. “We’ll put the particles in lake water, river water, groundwater, and seawater and watch their behavior,” he says. “Do they aggregate or not? If so, are they more likely to form deposits that infiltrate sediments? We’ll be observing how they attach to different surfaces to see what the important chemical reactions in the environment are.”


IRG 5 – High Throughput Testing: This group, led by UCLA professor Ken Bradley, will employ a state-of-the-art robotic high-throughput system to test the samples from the other groups’ experiments. Holden explains that the system can rapidly screen thousands of samples overnight, greatly accelerating the process of evaluating and assaying the particles.

IRG 6 – Database: This UCLA-based group will create an “expert” system to begin to identify trends, such as how different particles’ characteristics relate to toxicity or increased transport. The goal, says Keller, will be to develop a model for risk assessment for various particles.

IRG 7 – Sociological Aspects: The aim of this group, according to leader Barbara Herr Harthorn, is “to address more specifically the societal implications of emerging nanotechnology toxicological information and data. We will be researching how various sectors of the public perceive the environmental threats of nano-enabled materials.”

The group’s efforts will involve interacting with CEIN scientists to understand their work and which materials they are focusing on, conducting comparative historical analyses of past controversies concerning technological and environmental hazards, and conducting survey research to gauge public perceptions of threats.

Harthorn explains that the group will also engage with science journalists to develop “socially sustainable environmental risk communications,” or modes of communication that address the concerns scientists and various elements of the public have about the risks of nano-enabled products.”

The UC CEIN evolved in part from an ongoing UCLA-UCSB collaboration funded by the UC Toxic Substances Research and Teaching program, in which Bren and UCLA faculty co-presented courses on the principles of nanotoxicology and from which several Bren PhD students and UCLA students have received fellowship support for their research in nanotoxicology. CEIN will also have an education and outreach component to create new courses – for instance, on the safe handling of nanoparticles – that will be broadcast to the UC system, industry, government agencies, and other audiences that would find the information useful. In addition, says Keller, “We plan to have journalist/scientist workshops once a year to share information and gauge perceptions. In training students, we have a chance to develop more of a preemptive mindset for new technology to avert unexpected negative environmental consequences.”

Keller also sees in the project an important reflection of an important Bren School perspective. “Another key premise is to identify those characteristics that make nanoparticles safe so that we can help engineers design safe nanoparticles that still have the desired benefits,” he says. “That aligns with the Bren philosophy of looking for solutions to potential environmental problems – not just doing more and more research on the problem but actually researching the solutions.”

As for the policy aspect that is an integral part of the Bren School approach to environmental problems, Keller thinks that may come later. “It would probably be premature to have a policy aspect at this point,” he says. “We need the findings first. We need to quantify the behaviors and interactions, the fate and transport issues, the environmental effects of the particles. I would imagine, though, that this will grow to include that type of research in the future.”

The collaboration will also include colleagues at UC Davis, UC Riverside, Columbia University, Germany’s University of Bremen, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and the University of British Columbia.