Peter Cummings of Vanderbilt University and his colleagues have discovered that those marvels of the molecular playing field – the soccerball shaped fullerenes, aka buckyballs, can bind to DNA and cause it to deform, according to computer simulations published in the December issue of the Biophysical Journal. Perhaps most worrying is that they see this deformation in an aqueous environment rather than in an organic solvent.
Cummings and Alberto Striolo (now a faculty member at the University of Oklahoma), along with Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientist Xiongce Zhao, used molecular dynamics simulations to investigate the question of whether buckyballs would bind to DNA and, if so, whether they could then inflict any lasting damage.
Cummings suggests that his research reveals a potentially serious problem: “Buckyballs have a potentially adverse effect on the structure, stability and biological functions of DNA molecules.”
What is not mentioned in the Vanderbilt press release on this “discovery”, which as you will note is essentially theoretical is that the fullerenes are not particularly soluble in water under normal conditions. Indeed, researchers at London South Bank University explain that fullerene can be dispersed in water but only if it is transferred from an organic solvent using high energy sound (sonication). That word “dispersed” is crucial irrespective of the relatively sophisticated technology required to carry these molecules into water.
One thing that our bodies generally lack is a large supply of organic solvent and a sonicator. So, with any luck, the Cummings work will remain theoretical rather than experimental. While this kind of research must be carried out under the precautionary principle, it is not necessarily providing us with any useful insights into the real risks or otherwise of fullerenes. Moreover, the powerful media machine that includes university press offices these days now has another opportunity to kick chemistry.