Unveiling the invisible: nanoplastics' impact on human cells explored

In a recent study, scientists from UGent reveal how ultrafine plastic particles, both pristine and weathered, influence the energy metabolism of human intestinal cells, opening new doors to understanding their health impacts.

In the vast expanse of scientific inquiry, the tiny often tells the most compelling tales. The latest chapter comes from a collaboration between the research teams of Prof. Andreja Rajkovic (Imptox) and Prof. Jana Asselman from the Laboratory for Environmental Toxicology at Ghent University, delving into the microscopic world of nanoplastics. Their research, investigating the bioenergetic effects of nanoplastics on human intestinal cells, was published in "Science of The Total Environment" in November 2023. 

Nanoplastics, particularly those smaller than a speck of dust, are everywhere, yet largely unseen. These tiny trespassers have become ubiquitous in our environment. The study's novelty lies in examining not just pristine nanoplastics but also those weathered by ultraviolet (UV) rays – a more realistic representation of what we encounter in our daily lives. As larger plastic pieces weather in the environment, they break down into tiny nanoplastics, which, in turn, find their way into the human body through the food chain (including water) or even the air.

Using human intestinal Caco-2 cells as a model, the team explored how cells respond energetically to the exposure to nano-sized polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polystyrene (PS). Prof. Rajkovic’s research team has created a unique pioneering workflow that combines single plate analysis in Agilent Seahorse XFe96 and Sartorius Incucyte SX5 instruments for in-depth studies of the bioenergetic status of human cells in function of micro- and nanoplastics exposure and their cargo. 

They found that some nanoplastics spurred the cells' energy-producing machinery into overdrive, while others shifted from mitochondrial respiration to glycolysis.

Intriguingly, UV weathering, which can be likened to giving these plastics a sunbath, altered their impact. Prof. Asselman's team found that the sun-aged nanoplastics showed a reduced bioenergetic stress on the cells. This finding is crucial as it suggests that not all nanoplastics exert the same effect – their state of weathering plays a significant role. 

But what does this mean for us? While it's tempting to view these findings as a clarion call against an invisible invader, it's vital to tread the path of scientific caution. The study offers a glimpse, not a complete picture, of the potential health implications of nanoplastics. These preliminary insights are stepping stones towards a more comprehensive understanding.

As we navigate this evolving landscape, the importance of such research cannot be overstated. It feeds into the larger goal of the EU-funded Imptox project – to unravel the enigma of micro- and nanoplastic particles' effects on health. Through our forefront research on cellular bioenergetics and nanoplastics, we're uncovering how these tiny particles influence our cells, offering insights crucial for future environmental and health strategies,” says Prof. Andreja Rajkovic. This is science at its most crucial: peering into the unseen, to safeguard our wellbeing.


Miao Peng, Maaike Vercauteren, Charlotte Grootaert, Ana Isabel Catarino, Gert Everaert, Andreja Rajkovic, Colin Janssen, Jana Asselman, “Bioenergetic effects of pristine and ultraviolet-weathered polydisperse polyethylene terephthalate and polystyrene nanoplastics on human intestinal Caco-2 cells”, Science of The Total Environment, Volume 908, 2024, 168267, ISSN 0048-9697, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2023.168267.



Microplastics, nanoplastics, intestine, cells, human health, pollution, environment