Science and technology are constantly advancing. Each year brings new discoveries and new benefits to society. We develop technology that allows us to see far off galaxies that were invisible to even our most powerful telescopes, we develop new antibiotics and medical practices to extend our lives and preserve our bodies, and we improve our use of nanotechnology to create many new devices that have a variety of applications. Unfortunately, many of these advances have significant drawbacks.

Discovered about a decade ago, graphene is a sheet of carbon just one atom thick. It is incredibly strong despite being so thin. Because it is so lightweight and durable, it is frequently used in the production of display screens. It’s also used in electric circuits, solar cells, and a variety of other medical, chemical, and industrial processes. However, since it was only discovered 10 years ago, little is known about the effect that this material has on the human body. And now, researchers assert that the effect seems decidedly unpleasant.

A collaboration of biologists, engineers, and material scientists at Brown University recently announced that the jagged edges of graphene can easily pierce cell membranes, allowing graphene to enter the cell and disrupt normal function (an important discovery, as some have suggested using graphene in drinking straws and water filtration devices).

How Graphene sheets look molecularly (Credit: Monash University)

“These materials can be inhaled unintentionally, or they may be intentionally injected or implanted as components of new biomedical technologies,” said Robert Hurt, professor of engineering and one of the study’s authors.  The biology researchers from this study were able to show that graphene could indeed enter the cell, but determining the exact cause was somewhat problematic.

At first, computer models simulated these invasive interactions with graphene and cell membranes (at the molecular level) to be quite rare. The problem turned out to be that those initial simulations assumed a perfectly square piece of graphene. In reality, graphene sheets are rarely so pristine. When graphene is exfoliated, or peeled away from thicker chunks of graphite, the sheets come off in oddly shaped flakes with jagged protrusions called asperities. When Gao reran his simulations with asperities included, the sheets were able to pierce the membrane much more easily.

During the next phase of experimentation, researchers will attempt to discover what happens once a graphene sheet gets inside the cell. But this initial study provides an important start in understanding the potential for graphene toxicity.

In the early 1900s, several scientists developed cancer and perished as a result of their experimentation with the newly discovered X-ray. In 1934, Marie Curie died as a result of her long-term exposure to radiation (because of the levels of radioactivity, her papers from the 1890's are still considered too dangerous to handle. Even her cookbook is highly radioactive). Graphene gel does not seem to be as dangerous as the aforementioned, and of course, it would be unwise to say that we should fear technology. But research like this reminds us all why scientists must be so cautious and vigilant.

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