Nanoscale Advances, 2021, 3 (14), 4166-4185

Dynamic interactions and intracellular fate of label-free, thin graphene oxide sheets within mammalian cells: Role of lateral sheet size

Yingxian Chen, Jack Rivers-Auty, Livia Crică, Katie Barr, Vinicio Rosano, Adrian Arranz, Thomas Loret, Cyrill Bussy, David Spiller, Kostas Kostarelos*, Sandra Vranic*

Graphene oxide (GO) holds great potential for biomedical applications, however fundamental understanding of the way it interacts with biological systems is still lacking even though it is essential for successful clinical translation. In this study, we exploited intrinsic fluorescent properties of thin GO sheets to establish the relationship between lateral dimensions of the material, its cellular uptake mechanisms and intracellular fate over time. Label-free GO with distinct lateral dimensions, small (s-GO) and ultra-small (us-GO) were thoroughly characterised both in water and in biologically relevant cell culture medium. Interactions of the material with a range of non-phagocytic mammalian cell lines (BEAS-2B, NIH/3T3, HaCaT, 293T) were studied using a combination of complementary analytical techniques (confocal microscopy, flow cytometry and TEM). The uptake mechanism was initially interrogated using a range of pharmaceutical inhibitors and validated using polystyrene beads of different diameters (0.1 and 1 μm). Subsequently, RNA-Seq was used to follow the changes in the uptake mechanism used to internalize s-GO flakes over time. Regardless of lateral dimensions, both types of GO were found to interact with the plasma membrane and to be internalized by a panel of cell lines studied. However, s-GO was internalized mainly via macropinocytosis while us-GO was mainly internalized via clathrin- and caveolae-mediated endocytosis. Importantly, we report the shift from macropinocytosis to clathrin-dependent endocytosis in the uptake of s-GO at 24 h, mediated by upregulation of mTORC1/2 pathway. Finally, we show that both s-GO and us-GO terminate in lysosomal compartments for up to 48h. Our results offer an insight into the mechanism of interaction of GO with non-phagocytic cell lines over time that can be exploited for the design of biomedically-applicable 2D transport systems.