Cellular uptake mechanisms of functionalised multi-walled carbon nanotubes by 3D electron tomography imaging

Khuloud T Al-Jamal, Hannah Nerl, Karin H Müller, Hanene Ali-Boucetta, Shouping Li, Peter D Haynes, Joerg R Jinschek, Maurizio Prato, Alberto Bianco, Kostas Kostarelos, Alexandra E Porter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

90 Citations (Scopus)


Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are being investigated for a variety of biomedical applications. Despite numerous studies, the pathways by which carbon nanotubes enter cells and their subsequent intracellular trafficking and distribution remain poorly determined. Here, we use 3-D electron tomography techniques that offer optimum enhancement of contrast between carbon nanotubes and the plasma membrane to investigate the mechanisms involved in the cellular uptake of shortened, functionalised multi-walled carbon nanotubes (MWNT-NH(3)(+)). Both human lung epithelial (A549) cells, that are almost incapable of phagocytosis and primary macrophages, capable of extremely efficient phagocytosis, were used. We observed that MWNT-NH(3)(+) were internalised in both phagocytic and non-phagocytic cells by any one of three mechanisms: (a) individually via membrane wrapping; (b) individually by direct membrane translocation; and (c) in clusters within vesicular compartments. At early time points following intracellular translocation, we noticed accumulation of nanotube material within various intracellular compartments, while a long-term (14-day) study using primary human macrophages revealed that MWNT-NH(3)(+) were able to escape vesicular (phagosome) entrapment by translocating directly into the cytoplasm.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2627-35
Number of pages9
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2011


  • Carbon/chemistry
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Membrane/chemistry
  • Cytoplasm/chemistry
  • Electron Microscope Tomography/methods
  • Humans
  • Imaging, Three-Dimensional/methods
  • Macrophages/chemistry
  • Nanotubes, Carbon/chemistry
  • Phagocytosis/physiology
  • Phagosomes/chemistry


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