A Priority Programme of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft


R. Zellner, M. Bastmeyer, H. Bockhorn, P. Gehr, W. Kreyling, Th. Kuhlbusch, U. Nienhaus, H. Paur, E. Rühl, R. Schins, U. Simon, H. Weller

DFG Priority Programme SPP 1313
Biological Responses to Nanoscale Particles


With the advent of nanotechnology the interaction of nanoparticles (NPs) with biological systems including living cells has become one of the most intriguing areas of basic and applied research at the interface to biology. As nanoparticles are of the same size scale as typical cellular components and proteins, such particles are suspected to evade the natural defences of the human organism and may lead to permanent cell damages. Although there is substantial evidence from recent toxicological studies that nanoparticles may cause adverse heath effects, the fundamental cause-effect relationships have not yet been investigated. In the present research programme therefore the elementary processes of interactions of nanoparticles with biological systems at the molecular and cellular levels will be investigated. This includes their transfer across phase boundaries and biological membranes, their interactions with proteins and cellular constituents as well as their impact on important biological functions. These studies will involve state-of-the-art technologies for the production and characterisation of nanoparticles as well as their detection and measurement in biological systems. It is anticipated that this highly interdisciplinary research programme will reduce the existing uncertainties in quantifying the hazards associated with unintended exposure of humans to nanoparticles.

Scope of the programme

The programme has a strong interdisciplinary character and includes research fields from materials science, nanoscale physics, physical chemistry, inorganic chemistry, surface analytical chemistry, biophysics, cell biology and particle toxicology. The major scope is to identify and understand the elementary physical, chemical and biological processes by which manufactured nano-sized particles cross the phase boundaries of biological systems, interact with biomolecules, cells and cell constituents as well as affect their biological functions. For reasons of organizing and managing this programme its overall objectives have been subdivided in 3 different research fields including

  • The manufacturing and characterisation of NPs
  • The transition of NPs into and interaction with the biological environment
  • The impact of NPs on fundamental biological functions.
  • The programme addresses exclusively the behaviour of intended, engineered NPs in biological environments, where these particles were not intended for biological exposure. The particles used for the proposed studies will comprise types of materials that are currently in technological applications, such as carbonaceous particles (carbon black and CNTs), metals (Au, Ag, Pt, Pd), oxides of Si, Fe, Ti, Zn and others, core/shell NPs as well as semi-conductor quantum dots. Naturally occurring environmental and/or biological nanoscale particles will not be considered.

    The major innovation in setting up the present programme is the interfacing between nanotechnology and biology as exemplified by the following aspects:

    1. The methods of preparation and characterisation of nanoscale particles will focus on properties which are suspected to be effect-related in biological systems and will be adjusted to allow the transfer of NPs into and their localisation in biological environments.
    2. The systematic variation of NP parameters such as materials, their size and properties will allow for the analysis of specific biological responses in various organs, cells and sub-cellular systems.

    As a consequence only projects will be considered that demonstrate intensive cooperation between the different disciplines. Projects which only focus on selected aspects and hence neglect interdisciplinarity will not be accepted. Finally, a distinct separation of this programme is being made from current research on intended particles with desired biological activities in intended applications such as drug design and delivery. Any aspects of nanomedicine, therefore, will not be accepted for study in this programme. Moreover, the focus of this programme is exclusively on the biological system of humans or accepted analogies. Studies of the interaction of NPs with plants or microorganisms, as addressed in nanoecotoxicology, are excluded.

    Scientific programme

    The three central research fields are briefly described below:
    1. Manufacturing and characterisation of nanoparticles
    2. Transition of nanoparticles into and the interaction with the biolog
    3. The impact of nanoparticles on fundamental biological functions