Molecular recognition between membrane epitopes and nearly free surface silanols explains silica membranolytic activity

Cristina Pavan, Matthew J. Sydor, Chiara Bellomo, Riccardo Leinardi, Stefania Cananà, Rebekah L. Kendall, Erica Rebba, Marta Corno, Piero Ugliengo, Lorenzo Mino, Andrij Holian, Francesco Turci

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Inhaled crystalline silica causes inflammatory lung diseases, but the mechanism for its unique activity compared to other oxides remains unclear, preventing the development of potential therapeutics. Here, the molecular recognition mechanism between membrane epitopes and “nearly free silanols” (NFS), a specific subgroup of surface silanols, is identified and proposed as a novel broad explanation for particle toxicity in general. Silica samples having different bulk and surface properties, specifically different amounts of NFS, are tested with a set of membrane systems of decreasing molecular complexity and different charge. The results demonstrate that NFS content is the primary determinant of membrane disruption causing red blood cell lysis and changes in lipid order in zwitterionic, but not in negatively charged liposomes. NFS-rich silica strongly and irreversibly adsorbs zwitterionic self-assembled phospholipid structures. This selective interaction is corroborated by density functional theory and supports the hypothesis that NFS recognize membrane epitopes that exhibit a positive quaternary amino and negative phosphate group. These new findings define a new paradigm for deciphering particle-biomembrane interactions that will support safer design of materials and what types of treatments might interrupt particle-biomembrane interactions.

Original languageEnglish
Article number112625
JournalColloids and Surfaces B: Biointerfaces
StatePublished - Sep 2022


  • Liposome
  • Macrophage
  • Membrane
  • Phospholipid
  • Quartz
  • Silica


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