Graphene oxide significantly inhibits cell growth at sublethal concentrations by causing extracellular iron deficiency

<p>Graphene oxide (GO)-based materials are increasingly being used in medical materials and consumer products. However, their sublethal effects on biological systems are poorly understood. Here, we report that GO (at 10 to 160 mg/L) induced significant inhibitory effects on the growth of different unicellular organisms, including eukaryotes (i.e. <i>Saccharomyces cerevisiae</i>, <i>Candida albicans</i>, and <i>Komagataella pastoris</i>) and prokaryotes (<i>Pseudomonas fluorescens</i>). Growth inhibition could not be explained by commonly reported cytotoxicity mechanisms such as plasma membrane damage or oxidative stress. Based on transcriptomic analysis and measurement of extra- and intracellular iron concentrations, we show that the inhibitory effect of GO was mainly attributable to iron deficiency caused by binding to the O-functional groups of GO, which sequestered iron and disrupted iron-related physiological and metabolic processes. This inhibitory mechanism was corroborated with supplementary experiments, where adding bathophenanthroline disulfonate—an iron chelating agent—to the culture medium exerted similar inhibition, whereas removing surface O-functional groups of GO decreased iron sequestration and significantly alleviated the inhibitory effect. These findings highlight a potential indirect detrimental effect of nanomaterials (i.e. scavenging of critical nutrients), and encourage research on potential biomedical applications of GO-based materials to sequester iron and enhance treatment of iron-dependent diseases such as cancer and some pathogenic infections.</p>