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Single wall carbon nanotubes enter cells by endocytosis and not membrane penetration

Peter N Yaron1, Brian D Holt2, Philip A Short2, Mathias Lösche234, Mohammad F Islam5* and Kris Noel Dahl12*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Chemical Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, USA

2 Department of Biomedical Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, USA

3 Department of Physics, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, USA

4 Center for Neutron Research, The National Institute for Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD, USA

5 Department of Materials Science & Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, USA

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Journal of Nanobiotechnology 2011, 9:45  doi:10.1186/1477-3155-9-45

Published: 30 September 2011



Carbon nanotubes are increasingly being tested for use in cellular applications. Determining the mode of entry is essential to control and regulate specific interactions with cells, to understand toxicological effects of nanotubes, and to develop nanotube-based cellular technologies. We investigated cellular uptake of Pluronic copolymer-stabilized, purified ~145 nm long single wall carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs) through a series of complementary cellular, cell-mimetic, and in vitro model membrane experiments.


SWCNTs localized within fluorescently labeled endosomes, and confocal Raman spectroscopy showed a dramatic reduction in SWCNT uptake into cells at 4°C compared with 37°C. These data suggest energy-dependent endocytosis, as shown previously. We also examined the possibility for non-specific physical penetration of SWCNTs through the plasma membrane. Electrochemical impedance spectroscopy and Langmuir monolayer film balance measurements showed that Pluronic-stabilized SWCNTs associated with membranes but did not possess sufficient insertion energy to penetrate through the membrane. SWCNTs associated with vesicles made from plasma membranes but did not rupture the vesicles.


These measurements, combined, demonstrate that Pluronic-stabilized SWCNTs only enter cells via energy-dependent endocytosis, and association of SWCNTs to membrane likely increases uptake.