Cellular interactions with polystyrene nanoplastics—The role of particle size and protein corona

Shinji Kihara, Alexander Ashenden, Manmeet Kaur, Judith Glasson, Sunandita Ghosh, Nadine van der Heijden, Anna E.S. Brooks, Jitendra P. Mata, Stephen Holt, Laura J. Domigan, Ingo Köper, Duncan J. McGillivray

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)
7 Downloads (Pure)


Plastic waste is ubiquitously spread across the world and its smaller analogs—microplastics and nanoplastics—raise particular health concerns. While biological impacts of microplastics and nanoplastics have been actively studied, the chemical and biological bases for the adverse effects are sought after. This work explores contributory factors by combining results from in vitro and model mammalian membrane experimentation to assess the outcome of cell/nanoplastic interactions in molecular detail, inspecting the individual contribution of nanoplastics and different types of protein coronae. The in vitro study showed mild cytotoxicity and cellular uptake of polystyrene (PS) nanoplastics, with no clear trend based on nanoplastic size (20 and 200 nm) or surface charge. In contrast, a nanoplastic size-dependency on bilayer disruption was observed in the model system. This suggests that membrane disruption resulting from direct interaction with PS nanoplastics has little correlation with cytotoxicity. Furthermore, the level of bilayer disruption was found to be limited to the hydrophilic headgroup, indicating that transmembrane diffusion was an unlikely pathway for cellular uptake—endocytosis is the viable mechanism. In rare cases, small PS nanoplastics (20 nm) were found in the vicinity of chromosomes without a nuclear membrane surrounding them; however, this was not observed for larger PS nanoplastics (200 nm). We hypothesize that the nanoplastics can interact with chromosomes prior to nuclear membrane formation. Overall, precoating PS particles with protein coronae reduced the cytotoxicity, irrespective of the corona type. When comparing the two types, the extent of reduction was more apparent with soft than hard corona.

Original languageEnglish
Article number041001
Number of pages17
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
S.K. would like to acknowledge the University of Auckland (Award: doctoral scholarship) and AINSE Ltd. (Award: postgraduate scholarship) for commencing the doctoral work. We would also like to acknowledge ANSTO for providing the PLATYPUS neutron reflectometry beamtime (Nos. P7307 and P7390). We would also like to thank John Taylor from the University of Auckland for generously sharing his A549 cells.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Author(s).


  • polystyrene
  • Nanoplastic
  • Plastic waste
  • cellular interactions
  • particle size
  • protein corona


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