Low levels of graphene and graphene oxide inhibit cellular xenobiotic defense system mediated by efflux transporters
Low levels of graphene and graphene oxide (GO) are considered to be environmentally safe. In this study, we analyzed the potential effects of graphene and GO at relatively low concentrations on cellular xenobiotic defense system mediated by efflux transporters. The results showed that graphene (<0.5 μg/mL) and GO (<20 μg/mL) did not decrease cell viability, generate reactive oxygen species, or disrupt mitochondrial function. However, graphene and GO at the nontoxic concentrations could increase calcein-AM (CAM, an indicator of membrane ATP-binding cassette (ABC) transporter) activity) accumulation, indicating inhibition of ABC transporters’ efflux capabilities. This inhibition was observed even at 0.005 μg/mL graphene and 0.05 μg/mL GO, which are 100 times and 400 times lower than their lowest toxic concentration from cytotoxicity experiments, respectively. The inhibition of ABC transporters significantly increased the toxicity of paraquat and arsenic, known substrates of ABC transporters. The inhibition of ABC transporters was found to be based on graphene and GO damaging the plasma membrane structure and fluidity, thus altering functions of transmembrane ABC transporters. This study demonstrates that low levels of graphene and GO are not environmentally safe since they can significantly make cell more susceptible to other xenobiotics, and this chemosensitizing activity should be considered in the risk assessment of graphene and GO.