Rapid Dissolution of ZnO Nanoparticles Induced by Biological Buffers Significantly Impacts Cytotoxicity

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Zinc oxide nanoparticles (nZnO) are one of the most highly produced nanomaterials and are used in numerous applications including cosmetics and sunscreens despite reports demonstrating their cytotoxicity. Dissolution is viewed as one of the main sources of nanoparticle (NP) toxicity; however, dissolution studies can be time-intensive to perform and complicated by issues such as particle separation from solution. Our work attempts to overcome some of these challenges by utilizing new methods using UV/vis and fluorescence spectroscopy to quantitatively assess nZnO dissolution in various biologically relevant solutions. All biological buffers tested induce rapid dissolution of nZnO. These buffers, including HEPES, MOPS, and PIPES, are commonly used in cell culture media, cellular imaging solutions, and to maintain physiological pH. Additional studies using X-ray diffraction, FT-IR, X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, ICP-MS, and TEM were performed to understand how the inclusion of these nonessential media components impacts the behavior of nZnO in RPMI media. From these assessments, we demonstrate that HEPES causes increased dissolution kinetics, boosts the conversion of nZnO into zinc phosphate/carbonate, and, interestingly, alters the structural morphology of the complex precipitates formed with nZnO in cell culture conditions. Cell viability experiments demonstrated that the inclusion of these buffers significantly decrease the viability of Jurkat leukemic cells when challenged with nZnO. This work demonstrates that biologically relevant buffering systems dramatically impact the dynamics of nZnO including dissolution kinetics, morphology, complex precipitate formation, and toxicity profiles.