Surface functionalization and size modulate the formation of reactive oxygen species and genotoxic effects of cellulose nanofibrils

Kukka Aimonen, Monireh Imani, Mira Hartikainen, Satu Suhonen, Esa Vanhala, Carlos Moreno, Orlando J. Rojas, Hannu Norppa, Julia Catalán*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

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Background: Cellulose nanofibrils (CNFs) have emerged as a sustainable and environmentally friendly option for a broad range of applications. The fibrous nature and high biopersistence of CNFs call for a thorough toxicity assessment, but it is presently unclear which physico-chemical properties could play a role in determining the potential toxic response to CNF. Here, we assessed whether surface composition and size could modulate the genotoxicity of CNFs in human bronchial epithelial BEAS-2B cells. We examined three size fractions (fine, medium and coarse) of four CNFs with different surface chemistry: unmodified (U-CNF) and functionalized with 2,2,6,6-tetramethyl-piperidin-1-oxyl (TEMPO) (T-CNF), carboxymethyl (C-CNF) and epoxypropyltrimethylammonium chloride (EPTMAC) (E-CNF). In addition, the source fibre was also evaluated as a non-nanosized material. 

Results: The presence of the surface charged groups in the functionalized CNF samples resulted in higher amounts of individual nanofibrils and less aggregation compared with the U-CNF. T-CNF was the most homogenous, in agreement with its high surface group density. However, the colloidal stability of all the CNF samples dropped when dispersed in cell culture medium, especially in the case of T-CNF. CNF was internalized by a minority of BEAS-2B cells. No remarkable cytotoxic effects were induced by any of the cellulosic materials. All cellulosic materials, except the medium fraction of U-CNF, induced a dose-dependent intracellular formation of reactive oxygen species (ROS). The fine fraction of E-CNF, which induced DNA damage (measured by the comet assay) and chromosome damage (measured by the micronucleus assay), and the coarse fraction of C-CNF, which produced chromosome damage, also showed the most effective induction of ROS in their respective size fractions. 

Conclusions: Surface chemistry and size modulate the in vitro intracellular ROS formation and the induction of genotoxic effects by fibrillated celluloses. One cationic (fine E-CNF) and one anionic (coarse C-CNF) CNF showed primary genotoxic effects, possibly partly through ROS generation. However, the conclusions cannot be generalized to all types of CNFs, as the synthesis process and the dispersion method used for testing affect their physico-chemical properties and, hence, their toxic effects.

Original languageEnglish
Article number19
Number of pages21
JournalParticle and Fibre Toxicology
Issue number1
Early online date16 Mar 2022
Publication statusPublished - 16 Mar 2022
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • Cellulose nanofibrils
  • Functionalization
  • Genotoxicity
  • High aspect ratio
  • Nanofibrillated celluloses
  • Reactive oxygen species
  • Surface chemistry


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