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Computer simulation shows buckyballs deform DNA

Soccer-ball-shaped "buckyballs" are the most famous players on the nanoscale field, presenting tantalizing prospects of revolutionizing medicine and the computer industry. Since their discovery in 1985, engineers and scientists have been exploring the properties of these molecules for a wide range of applications and innovations.

But could these microscopic spheres represent a potential environmental hazard?

A new study published in December 2005 in Biophysical Journal raises a red flag regarding the safety of buckyballs when dissolved in water. It reports the results of a detailed computer simulation that finds buckyballs bind to the spirals in DNA molecules in an aqueous environment, causing the DNA to deform, potentially interfering with its biological functions and possibly causing long-term negative side effects in people and other living organisms.

The research, conducted at Vanderbilt by chemical engineers Peter T. Cummings and Alberto Striolo (now a faculty member at the University of Oklahoma), along with Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientist Xiongce Zhao, employed molecular dynamics simulations to investigate the question of whether buckyballs would bind to DNA and, if so, might inflict any lasting damage. "Safe is a difficult word to define, since few substances that can be ingested into the human body are completely safe," points out Cummings, who is the John R. Hall Professor of Chemical Engineering and director of the Nanomaterials Theory Institute at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

"Even common table salt, if eaten in sufficient quantity, is lethal. What we are doing is looking at the mechanisms of interaction between buckyballs and DNA; we don't know yet what actually happens in the body," he says.

Surprising findings

Despite the caveat, Cummings suggests that his research reveals a potentially serious problem: "Buckyballs have a potentially adverse effect on the structure, stability and biologi
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Contact: Vivian Cooper
vivian.f.cooper-capps@vanderbilt.edu
615-343-6314
Vanderbilt University
6-Dec-2005


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