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Researchers at the Centre for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN) have demonstrated a way to dramatically reduce the toxicity of buckyballs.

Earlier this year, Eva Oberdoerster, an environmental toxicologist with Southern Methodist University, found brain damage in fish exposed to the fullerene molecules.

Until her research, scientists had not looked for toxic behaviour at all, expecting that the molecules would just become "part of the muck". Now, the CBEN project has confirmed the toxicity of the molecule, but the researchers have found a way to switch it off.

Buckyballs, named after American architect, Richard Buckminster Fuller, who designed a geodesic dome with essentially the same symmetry, are football (soccer ball) shaped, hollow molecules consisting of 60 carbon atoms. They do occur in nature, but were only discovered, in a lab, in 1985.

The molecule has had a huge impact on materials science, since its discovery, and it has potential application in pharmaceuticals, fuel cells and so on. However, there are concerns about the effect they may have on human and animal health.

The CBEN research looked at plain Buckballs, and Buckyballs with various degrees of surface modification - that is, buckyballs with other molecule attached. According to News-Medical.net, they found that the greater the surface modification, the lower the toxicity.

Vicki Colvin, CBEN director, professor of chemistry and chemical engineering, and the principal investigator for the research, explained that there are some cases where the toxicity is useful, such as in treatments for cancer. "In other cases -- like applications where particles may make their way into the environment -- toxicity is undesirable," she added.

The research team stressed that the lab tests were not a reliable indication of how the molecule might behave inside an animal body. In the real world, they explained, other body processes would have to be considered. In addition, the bonds to the modifying molecule can be broken by UV light, limiting the technique's usefulness in the outside world.

The research is to be published in the journal Nano Letters. ®

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