Impacts of foodborne inorganic nanoparticles on the gut microbiota-immune axis: potential consequences for host health

Part Fibre Toxicol. 2020 Jun 1;17(1):19. doi: 10.1186/s12989-020-00349-z.


Background: In food toxicology, there is growing interest in studying the impacts of foodborne nanoparticles (NPs, originating from food additives, food supplements or food packaging) on the intestinal microbiome due to the important and complex physiological roles of these microbial communities in host health. Biocidal activities, as described over recent years for most inorganic and metal NPs, could favour chronic changes in the composition and/or metabolic activities of commensal bacteria (namely, intestinal dysbiosis) with consequences on immune functions. Reciprocally, direct interactions of NPs with the immune system (e.g., inflammatory responses, adjuvant or immunosuppressive properties) may in turn have effects on the gut microbiota. Many chronic diseases in humans are associated with alterations along the microbiota-immune system axis, such as inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) (Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis), metabolic disorders (e.g., obesity) or colorectal cancer (CRC). This raises the question of whether chronic dietary exposure to inorganic NPs may be viewed as a risk factor facilitating disease onset and/or progression. Deciphering the variety of effects along the microbiota-immune axis may aid the understanding of how daily exposure to inorganic NPs through various foodstuffs may potentially disturb the intricate dialogue between gut commensals and immunity, hence increasing the vulnerability of the host. In animal studies, dose levels and durations of oral treatment are key factors for mimicking exposure conditions to which humans are or may be exposed through the diet on a daily basis, and are needed for hazard identification and risk assessment of foodborne NPs. This review summarizes relevant studies to support the development of predictive toxicological models that account for the gut microbiota-immune axis.

Conclusions: The literature indicates that, in addition to evoking immune dysfunctions in the gut, inorganic NPs exhibit a moderate to extensive impact on intestinal microbiota composition and activity, highlighting a recurrent signature that favours colonization of the intestine by pathobionts at the expense of beneficial bacterial strains, as observed in IBD, CRC and obesity. Considering the long-term exposure via food, the effects of NPs on the gut microbiome should be considered in human health risk assessment, especially when a nanomaterial exhibits antimicrobial properties.

Keywords: Colorectal cancer; Gut dysbiosis; Gut inflammation; Intestinal microbiota; Nanoparticles; Obesity; Silicon dioxide; Silver; Titanium dioxide; Zinc oxide.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Food*
  • Gastrointestinal Microbiome / drug effects*
  • Humans
  • Immune System / drug effects*
  • Immunity, Mucosal / drug effects
  • Inorganic Chemicals / chemistry
  • Inorganic Chemicals / toxicity*
  • Intestinal Mucosa / drug effects
  • Metal Nanoparticles / chemistry
  • Metal Nanoparticles / toxicity
  • Nanostructures / chemistry
  • Nanostructures / toxicity*
  • Silicon Dioxide / chemistry
  • Silicon Dioxide / toxicity


  • Inorganic Chemicals
  • Silicon Dioxide