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Nanoparticles Create Spirals in the Lungs

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Image of black spirals

Caption: Snapshot of changes that occur (black) when surfactant molecules are stressed by carbon nanoparticles. For the less spectacular “before” image, click the “Continue reading” link.
Source: Prajnaparamita Dhar, Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Kansas, Lawrence

These eye-catching spirals may resemble a trendy print from Diane von Furstenberg’s Spring Collection, but they’re actually a close-up of lung surfactant—a lipid-protein film that coats the inside of the air sacs in the lungs, making it easier to breathe. Made using fluorescence microscopy techniques, this image shows what happens to the surfactant (black) when it interacts with carbon nanoparticles.

Scientists found that carbon nanoparticles rearrange the surfactant molecules from kidney bean shaped clusters into solid spirals. Since carbon nanoparticles may be effective drug delivery vehicles, it’s important to know how these molecules alter the surfactant—and whether these changes are harmful.

The verdict is still out on whether disrupting the surfactant triggers breathing problems, but we can still be mesmerized by the image.

Image of black circles with small wedges of vacant space, much like a pie with a slice missing

Caption: Lung surfactant before the addition of carbon nanoparticles
Source: Prajnaparamita Dhar


Lipid-protein interactions alter line tensions and domain size distributions in lung surfactant monolayers. Dhar P, Eck E, Israelachvili JN, Lee DW, Min Y, Ramachandran A, Waring AJ, Zasadzinski JA. Biophys J. 2012 Jan 4;102(1):56-65.

As highlighted in Biomedical Beat, a monthly digest of research news from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, NIH.

NIH support: the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences; and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences