Earthworms Absorb Copper Nanomaterials From Soil

A new study demonstrates that earthworms absorbed discarded copper nanoparticles that are present in soil. The University of Kentucky study was funded by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


(Earthworms could be miners)

One crucial step in determining the uptake of nanomaterials was discerning whether uptake of metal ions was released from the nanomaterials or the nanomaterials themselves. Using x-ray analysis, researchers were able to differentiate between copper ions and copper nanoparticles by examining the oxidation state of copper in the earthworm tissues.

Many products will release their nanomaterials either as a result of regular use or after disposal. These discarded nanoparticles could enter waterways and eventually soil. According to the authors, it is unclear how nanomaterials interact in the environment due to lack of scientific research; however, there is a possibility of unintentional ingestion by humans and animals.

Jason Unrine, the lead author of the study said, "This was one of the first studies to demonstrate that engineered nanomaterials can be taken up from the soil by soil organisms and enter food chains, and it has significant implications in terms of potential exposure to nanomaterials for both humans and ecological receptor species."

Maybe there's a way to turn this situation to our advantage. In Larry Niven's 1968 novel A Gift From Earth, he writes about specially developed mining worms:

A mining worm is five inches long and a quarter inch in diameter, mutated from an earthworm. Its grinding orifice is rimmed with little diamond teeth. It ingests metal ores for pleasure, but for food it has to be supplied with blocks of synthetic stuff which is different for each breed of worm - and there's a breed for every metal...

What breaks down the ores is a bacterium in the worm's stomach. Then the worm drops metal grains around it's food block, and we sweep them up.
(Read more about Niven's mining worms)

Update: We should get these earthworms working as soon as possible; take a look at the results of an in vivo study on copper nanoparticle absorbtion by mice (click here and scroll down). Thanks, duG!

End update.

Via Eurekalert.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 12/17/2010)

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