Visualization, quantification and coordination of Ag+ ions released from silver nanoparticles in hepatocytes

Nanoscale. 2016 Sep 29;8(38):17012-17021. doi: 10.1039/c6nr04381j.


Silver nanoparticles (AgNPs) can enter eukaryotic cells and exert toxic effects, most probably as a consequence of the release of Ag+ ions. Due to the elusive nature of Ag+ ionic species, quantitative information concerning AgNP intracellular dissolution is missing. By using a synchrotron nanoprobe, silver is visualized and quantified in hepatocytes (HepG2) exposed to AgNPs; the synergistic use of electron microscopy allows for the discrimination between nanoparticular and ionic forms of silver within a single cell. AgNPs are located in endocytosis vesicles, while the visualized Ag+ ions diffuse in the cell. The averaged NP dissolution rates, measured by X-ray absorption spectroscopy, highlight the faster dissolution of citrate-coated AgNPs with respect to the less toxic PVP-coated AgNPs; these results are confirmed at the single-cell level. The released Ag+ ions recombine with thiol-bearing biomolecules: the Ag-S distances measured in cellulo, and the quantitative evaluation of gene expression, provide independent evidence of the involvement of glutathione and metallothioneins in Ag+ binding. The combined use of cutting-edge imaging techniques, atomic spectroscopy and molecular biology brings insight into the fate of AgNPs in hepatocytes, and more generally into the physicochemical transformations of metallic nanoparticles in biological environments and the resulting disruption of metal homeostasis.

MeSH terms

  • Citrates
  • Hep G2 Cells
  • Hepatocytes / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Ions
  • Metal Nanoparticles*
  • Silver / analysis*


  • Citrates
  • Ions
  • Silver