Chemical Reactions, CR 1: Predicting Reactions (HS), Physical Science, S&P 2: Synthetic Materials (MS), S&P 4: Molecule Traits (HS), Structure & Properties of Matter, W 3: Digital vs Analog (MS), Waves & Electromagnetic Radiation

Nanoplastics and the Cell Membrane: A Simulation

Polystyrene Nanoparticles Perturb Lipid Membranes(NOT OPEN ACCESS)

SUMMARY: This experiment used computer graphics to simulate how polystyrene nanoparticles could possibly interact with a biological membrane. This requires knowing the chemical properties of both polystyrene and the cell membrane. The simulation (called a coarse-grained molecular simulation) showed that these tiny pieces of plastic are able to dissolve in between the layers of the cell membrane. What are the implications of this? The researchers in this experiment suggest that this can disrupt membrane protein function which can lead to changes in cell function.

LESSON COMMENTS: If you’re teaching middle school, this is an interesting way to introduce the concepts of: hydrophobic, hydrophilic, solute, solvent, and solubility. These concepts can be explored further in high school chemistry and biology class.
For a biology class, this paper can also be used to talk about cell signaling, action potential, apoptosis, biochemical cascades, and the different types of membrane proteins.

If you are teaching computer science, this is a good paper to demonstrate the importance of creating simulations. What are some things that a simulation can show that’s just not possible to see, even with the best microscope? SEM and TEM require frozen (aka: dead) samples, how does this simulation take all the information we know about plastic and cell membranes and shows us a possible mechanism of movement?

G. Rossi, J. Barnoud, and L. Monticelli, “Polystyrene Nanoparticles Perturb Lipid Membranes,” The Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 241–246, 2013.