The ability of people to construct and manipulate materials at a nano-scale has increased tremendously during the last decade, building the fundamentals of the interdisciplinary science nanotechnology. Nanomaterials behave differently than the same material at a non-nano scale; they have high surface area to volume ratio, high solubility, and specific targeting due to small size, high mobility, and low toxicity. They can be engineered for surface reactivity or other desired characteristics - unique behaviour that can be both useful and profitable. As of March 2011, over 1300 commercially available products contain nanomaterials. Nanotechnology was a $1 trillion industry in 2015.
According to the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) (https://www.nano.gov/about-nni ), “Nanotechnology research and development is directed towards understanding and creating improved materials, devices and systems that exploit nanoscale properties”. Following the definition of the Royal Society, "Nanotechnologies are the design, characterization, production and application of structures, devices and systems by controlling shape and size at nanometer scale".
Recently, nanotechnology has emerged as the sixth revolutionary technology after the green revolution of the 1960s and the biotechnology revolution of the 1990s. Nanotechnology is a novel scientific approach that involves the use of materials and equipment capable of manipulating physical and chemical properties of a substance at molecular levels. It merges science and technology, leading to revolutionary breakthrough in electronics, energy, remediation, automobile, space technology, and life sciences. The potential uses and benefits of nanotechnology are enormous. Nowadays, nanotechnology is progressively moved away from the experimental into the practical areas. Among others, it promises significant contribution to agricultural research in solving important agricultural problems, such as detection of pollutants, plant diseases, pests, and pathogens; controlled delivery of pesticides, fertilizers, nutrients, and genetic material; formation and binding of soil structure. Today, when agricultural scientists are facing major challenges such as reduced crop production, nutrient deficiency and climate change, nanotechnology has offered promising applications for precision farming. This innovative technology embraces wide applications such as plant disease control, enhanced nutrient uptake, improved plant growth, and sustained release of agrochemicals. Interestingly, a nanoparticle (NP)-based strategy has gained momentum and has become increasingly popular in the agricultural sector as a result of its unique properties compared with those of the biopesticides. The application of nanotechnology to agriculture (the so-called agri-nanotechnology, Fig. 1) is getting significant attention, primary in the following several categories:
Fig. 1. Multidisciplinary nature of agri-nanotechnology.
Currently, the potential of nanotechnology in sustainable agriculture management is clearly recognized. It occupies a prominent position in transforming agriculture and food production. The development of nano-devices and nanomaterials could forward novel applications in plant biotechnology and agriculture. Thus, the development of slow/controlled release fertilizers on the basis of nanotechnology has now become crucial for promoting the development of environmentally friendly and sustainable agriculture. Applying nanoscale or nanostructured materials as fertilizer carriers leads to the development of the so-called “smart fertilizer” – new facilities that enhance the nutrient use efficiency and reduce the costs of environmental protection.
The outburst of world population in the last 10–15 years has imposed the necessity for higher agriculture productivity to satisfy the food needs of billions of people. The increasing nutrient deficiency in soils causes significant economic losses for farmers on the one hand and considerable decreases in nutritional quality of grain for food and feed. The crop productivity can be enhanced through application of fertilizers, although they have an additional role in enhancing the food production especially after the introduction of high yielding and fertilizer responsive crop varieties. Conventional fertilizers are generally applied on the crops by either spraying or broadcasting. An important factor, on which the mode of application depends, is the real final concentration of the fertilizers in the plants. Conventional fertilizers offer nutrients in chemical forms that are not fully accessible to plants. Additionally, the inversion of these chemicals to insoluble form in soil is the reason for the very low utilization of most of the macronutrients. A concentration much below the minimal desired one reaches to the targeted site due to leaching of chemicals, drift, runoff, evaporation, hydrolysis by soil moisture, and photolytic and microbial degradation. It has been estimated that around 40–70 % of nitrogen, 80–90 % of phosphorus, and 50–90 % of potassium content of applied fertilizers are lost in the environment and never reach the plant. These problems superimpose repeated use of fertilizers. According to the International Fertilizer Industry Association, world fertilizer consumption sharply picked up in 2009–2010 and 2010–2011 with growth rates of 5–6 %. World demand is estimated to reach 192.8 Mt by 2016–2017. The repeated use, in turn, adversely affects the inherent nutrient balance of the soil and results in environmental pollution affecting normal flora and fauna. It is reported that excess use of fertilizers increases pathogen and pest resistance, reduces soil microflora, diminishes nitrogen fixation, contributes to bioaccumulation of pesticides, and destroys habitats for birds. This vicious circle causes sustainable and economic losses.
It is well known that the yields of many crops have begun to drop as a result of imbalanced fertilization and decrease in soil organic matter. Moreover, excessive applications of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers affect the groundwater and also lead to eutrophication in aquatic ecosystems. The remaining minerals may either leach down and/or leak and become fixed in the soil, or contribute to air pollution. Considering these facts, the large-scale application of chemical fertilizers to increase the crop productivity is not an acceptable option for sustainability. Especially in a long-term perspective, although the conventional fertilizers increase the crop production, they disturb the soil mineral balance and decrease the soil fertility. In addition to the irreparable damage that the excess use of chemical fertilizers causes to the soil structure and mineral cycles, it spoils the soil microflora, plants, and consequently, the food chains across ecosystems, leading to heritable mutations in future generations of consumers. Thus, there is an urgent need to optimize the use of chemical fertilization to fulfil the crop nutrient requirements and to minimize the risk of environmental pollution. Accordingly, it is very important to develop smart materials that can systematically release chemicals to specific targeted sites in plants which could be beneficial in controlling the nutrition deficiency in agriculture, while keeping the natural soil structure and contributing to clean environment. Nano-fertilizers are promising alternative in this context.
A nano-fertilizer refers to a product in nanometer scale that delivers nutrients to crops. Nano-fertilizer technology is a recent innovation. Substituting traditional methods of fertilizer application by nano-fertilizers is an approach to release nutrients into the soil both gradually and in a controlled way. Nano-fertilizers show controlled release of agrochemicals through site-targeted delivery, reduction in toxicity, and enhanced nutrient utilization of delivered fertilizers. They possess unique features that enhance plants’ performance in terms of ultrahigh absorption, increase in production, rise in photosynthesis, and significant expansion in the leaves’ surface area. Besides, the controlled release of nutrients contributes to preventing eutrophication and pollution of water resources.
In nano-fertilizers, nutrients can be encapsulated by nanomaterials, coated with a thin protective film, or delivered as emulsions or nanoparticles. There are many throughput examples of nano-fertilizers application. Thus, treatment with TiO2 nanoparticles on maize had a considerable effect on growth, whereas the effect of TiO2 bulk treatment was negligible. Titanium nanoparticles increased the light absorption and photo energy transmission. In another experiment, a compound of SiO2 and TiO2 nanoparticles increased the activity of nitrate reductase in soybeans and intensified the plant absorption capacity, making the use of water and fertilizer more efficient. A nano-organic iron-chelated fertilizer is proved to be environmentally sustainable. The positive effect from the uptake and penetration of ZnO2 nanoparticles on tomato plants leaves supports its potential use as a future nano-fertilizer. Nano-fertilizers that ensure slow, targeted, efficient release have the potential to increase the efficiency of nutrient uptake. Engineered nano-particles are useful for mitigating the chronic problem of moisture retention in arid soils and enhancing crop production by increasing the availability of nutrients in the rhizosphere. Coating and binding of nano-particles help to regulate the release of nutrients from the fertilizer capsule. Application of a nano-composite consisting of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, micronutrients, mannose, and amino acids enhanced the uptake and use of nutrients by grain crops. Zn–Al layered double-hydroxide nano-composites have been employed for the controlled release of chemical compounds that act as plant growth regulators. Nano-porous zeolite based on nitrogen fertilizer can be used as an alternate strategy to improve the efficiency of nitrogen use in crop production systems. As super-fertilizer, carbon nanotubes were found to penetrate tomato seeds and affect their germination and growth rates. Analytical methods indicated that the carbon nanotubes penetrated the thick seed coat and supported water uptake inside seeds.
These facts support the statement that fertilizers based on nanotechnology have the potential to surpass conventional fertilizers following several important indices (as shown in Table 1).
Table 1. Conventional fertilizers vs. nano-fertilizers
|Dispersion of mineral micronutrients||Improved dispersion of insoluble nutrients||Lower solubility due to large particle size|
|Soil adsorption and fixation||Reduced||High|
|Efficiency of nutrients uptake||Increased uptake ratio; saves fertilizer resource||Conventional fertilizer is not available to roots and the nutrients uptake efficiency is low|
|Controlled release||Release rate and pattern precisely controlled||Excess release leading to toxicity and soil imbalance|
|Effective duration of release||Extended effective duration||Used by the plant at the site and time of application; the rest is converted into insoluble form|
|Loss rate||Reduced loss of fertilizer nutrients||High loss rate due to leaching, drifting, run-off|
The nano-fertilizers should be formulated in a way that they retain important properties such as high solubility, stability, effectiveness, time-controlled release, enhanced targeted activity with effective concentration, and less eco-toxicity due to the safe, easy mode of delivery and disposal.
Nanoparticles possess a great potential in targeted delivery of nutrients to living systems. Nanoparticles can be loaded by nutrients most commonly through one of the following ways:
Thus, it has been shown that chitosan nanoparticles suspensions containing N, P, and K fertilizers can be useful for agricultural applications. Similarly, urea-modified hydroxyapatite (HA) nanoparticles are exploited for slow and sustained release of nitrogen over time with the crop growth. The large surface area of HA facilitates the large amount of urea attachment on the HA surface and the strong interaction between HA nanoparticles and urea contributes to the slow and controlled release of urea. Polymer-based mesoporous nanoparticles can also provide an efficient carrier system to agrochemical compounds. Mesoporous silica nanoparticles (150 nm) have been reported to entrap urea and to release it in a controlled manner in soil and water.
The efficiency of nano-fertilizers and their impact on plant systems is influenced by the method of their application. The delivery of nano-fertilizers to plants can be realized through the methods listed below. The approaches include either in vitro or in vivo application, as shown in Table 2.
Table 2. Modes of nano-fertilizer application
|In vitro methods||In vivo methods|
Technology expansion has improved the ways for large-scale production of nanoparticles of physiologically important metals, which are now used as “smart delivery systems” in order to improve fertilizer formulation by minimizing nutrient loss and increasing the uptake in plant cells. “Smart delivery systems” means a combination of specifically targeted, highly controlled, remotely regulated, and multifunctional characteristic to avoid biological barriers for successful targeting. The specific properties of nano-fertilizers, i.e. their high surface area, sorption capacity, and controlled-release kinetics to targeted sites, attribute them as a smart delivery system.
Smart fertilizers are becoming a reality through transformed formulation of conventional products using nanotechnology. The nanostructured formulation allows a fertilizer to intelligently control the release speed of nutrients in order to match the uptake pattern of a specific crop. It improves the solubility and dispersion of insoluble nutrients in the soil, reduces the soil absorption and fixation and increases the bioavailability and, hence, the nutrient uptake efficiency.
Mediated synthesis of metal nanoparticles by microorganisms
In recent years, the use of biological entities has emerged as a novel method for the synthesis of nanoparticles. The biotechnological synthesis of nanoparticles has many advantages, such as the use of known microbial technologies and processes to scale up the obtaining of biomass. This is leading to economic viability, possibility of readily covering large surface areas by suitable growth of microbes, which is of major advantage in the field of agriculture for easier production of bio-fertilizers.
The disadvantages of the conventional methods for obtaining metal nanoparticles like high energy demands and high fabrication cost, as well as toxic by-products production, makes the implementation of such approaches at large scale very complicated. The use of microbial cell factories like bacteria, fungi, algae, viruses and actinomycetes provides a smart alternative way of synthesis of metallic nanoparticles. The biosynthesis of metallic nanoparticles in such microorganisms is a low-cost and eco-friendly technology. The use of a broad number of microorganisms, prokaryotic as well as eukaryotic ones, takes part in the synthesis of a wide range of metal nanoparticles, such as gold (Au), silver (Ag), lead (Pb), platinum (Pt), copper (Cu), iron (Fe), cadmium (Cd) and metal oxides such as titanium oxide (TiO), zinc oxide (ZnO), etc. These microorganisms provide varied conditions for the production of nanoparticles. The nanoparticles produced are highly useful, safe and environmentally friendly in nature with a lot of applications ((Syed, PhD Thesis). In agriculture, the nanoparticles most widely used as bioeffectors are coper (Cu), iron (Fe), silver (Ag) and gold (Au). The future challenges in this respect comprise optimal biosynthesis of nanoparticles with defined size and shape as well as optimal duration of the fermentation process in order to enhance their stability.
Microbiological synthesis is a new approach to the manufacture of nanoparticles and realization of the so-called bio-nanofactories. The major characteristics of nanoparticles have been revealed in research on prepared nanoparticles of desirable shape and size.
The principal flow chart for microbiological synthesis of metallic nanoparticles is presented in Fig. 2.
Fig.2 Principal flow chart for microbiological synthesis of metallic nanoparticles
The following important parameters play a significant role in the biosynthesis of nanoparticles.
1 Bioresources used for nanoparticle biosynthesis: The synthesis of nanoparticles is characterized by choice of the most convenient microorganism with respect to: growth rate, enzyme production and the respective metabolic pathways. Some microorganisms, like bacteria, viruses, fungi, yeasts and algae, are used for the biosynthesis of metallic nanoparticles and are an object of specific research.
2. Cellular metabolites involved in biosynthesis: Molecules like enzymes, proteins, polysaccharides etc. act as reducing and stabilizing agents in the biosynthesis of nanoparticles. They can be utilized in the process as whole-cell microorganisms, crude cell preparations, and crude or purified enzymes obtained from microorganisms. The obtained nanoparticles result mainly from bioreduction, which is realized by co-enzymes such as NADH, NADPH, FAD, etc. It has been found that nanoparticle synthesis with the help of whole fungal cells is much cheaper as compared to that using purified enzymes from the same fungal strain (Syed, PhD Thesis).
3. Reactions facilitating nanoparticle biosynthesis: The process of this biosynthesis is initiated with harvesting of microbial biomass, which is related with residual nutrients and metabolites to avoid undesired by-product reactions. During the processes of scalling up, the production rate and product yield are of special interest and optimization is necessary (e.g. production time, pH, temperature etc.). The process of optimization of these factors can influence the particles morphology and their properties. Thus, researchers have currently directed their investigations on arranging the optimal reaction conditions as well as the equipment used in the bioreduction process (Syed, PhD Thesis).
4 Growth of inoculum for biosynthesis of nanoparticles: The biosynthesis of nanoparticles depends on the growth conditions of the microbial producers, e.g. nutrients, pH, temperature, etc. These factors need to be optimized. They are also important in case of using whole cells and crude enzymes. Another important parameter for optimization of the inoculums is the harvesting time, so it is necessary to monitor the enzyme activities during the growth (Syed, PhD Thesis).
Microbial nanoformulations: exploring the potential for nano-farming
Nanoparticles synthesized by microbes are highly stable and could offer a non-toxic, cost-effective and eco-friendly approach for synthesis over chemical ones. This green synthesis has a great advantage over the chemical methods, which have toxic effects on the environment. Thus, the use of agriculturally important microorganisms for nanoparticle biosynthesis and their further role in agriculture is of considerable significance. The use of nanoformulations may enhance the stability of bio-fertilizers and bio-stimulators with respect to desiccation, heat, and UV inactivation.
The uptake and fate of nano-fertilizers in plants is an emerging field of research interest. The uptake, translocation, and accumulation of nanoparticles depend on the plant itself, more specifically, on the plant species, age, and growth environment. These processes are also linked to the physicochemical properties, functionalization, stability, and mode of delivery of the nanoparticles. A schematic representation of the uptake, translocation, and biotransformation pathway of various nanoparticles is proposed by Rico et al. (2011) along with possible modes of cellular uptake in the plant system. According to this presentation, the root system uptakes and translocates ZnO2+, Cu2+, Al3+, Ag2+ and Fe3O4 nanoparticles (NP) to the foliar part of a plant, regardless of its species. In addition, indicatives for species dependence are available for the translocation of Cu NP, ZnO NP, Al NP and Ag NP (all in leaves), Ni(OH)2 NP in the stem, and CeO2 NP in both the stem and leaves. Translocation of Fe3O4 NP in the stem is also speculated.
The probable differential interaction of nanoparticles on exposure in the root absorption zone is summarized in Table 3.
Table 3. Localization and interaction of different nanoparticles in the root absorption zone.
|Nanoparticle||Localization / interaction|
|ZnO NP||Endodermis, metaxylem; Zn2+ - in the metaxylem|
|Al NP||Cortex Al3+ - in the metaxylem|
|Ag NP||Cortex; Ag2+ - in the metaxylem|
|Cu NP||Cortex; Cu2+ - in the cambium and metaxylem|
|Ni (OH)2 NP||Metaxylem|
The entry of the nanoparticles through the cell wall depends on the cell wall pore diameter (5–20 nm). That is why nanoparticles or nanoparticle aggregates with a diameter less than the pore size of the plant cell walls can easily enter through the cell wall and reach up to the plasma membrane. Functionalized nanoparticles can facilitate the enlargement of the pore size or the induction of new cell-wall pore formation to enhance the uptake of nanoparticles. Research discussions are going on about the uptake of nanoparticles into plant cells mediated by binding to carrier proteins through aquaporin, ion channels or endocytosis. Additionally, nanoparticles can also be transported into the plant by forming complexes with membrane transporter proteins or root exudates. Other studies report that nanoparticles could enter through the stomata or trichome bases in leaves. Studies on the uptake and translocation of TiO2–alizarin red S complex in Arabidopsis thaliana seedlings have revealed that the mucilage released by the roots develops a pectin hydrogel complex around the root, which is most probably responsible for the entry of the nanoparticle–dye complex.
Recent studies on the mechanism of nanoparticle uptake and translocation have exploited fluorescently labeled monodispersed mesoporous silica nanoparticles which have been shown to penetrate the roots via the symplastic and apoplastic pathways and translocate via the xylem tissue to the aerial parts of plants, including the stem and leaves. However, the exact mechanism of nanoparticle uptake by plants is still not fully elucidated.
In the cytoplasm, nanoparticles are targeted to different cytoplasmic organelles and interfere with different metabolic processes of the cell (Table 3). It is shown that the uptake of TiO2 nanoparticles in wheat includes localization in parenchyma and vascular tissues of the root. The cell internalization and upward translocation of ZnO nanoparticles in Lolium perenne (ryegrasses) proceeds through the root cells and then they move up to the vascular tissues.
The uptake and accumulation of ZnO nanoparticles, when applied at higher concentrations, is hindered, since the nanoparticles get agglomerated, which inhibits their entry through the cell-wall pores. Moreover, X-ray absorption spectroscopy of ZnO-treated seedlings revealed presence of Zn2+ ions instead of ZnO, suggesting a role of the roots in ZnO ionization on the surface.
Another class of nanoparticles, the magnetite NP, behave in a way that their presence in root, stem and leaves can be reported, and the extent of the nanoparticle uptake has been proved to be affected by the type of the growth medium. A higher uptake was achieved in hydroponic medium as compared to that observed in plants grown in sand, whereas no uptake was observed in plants grown in soil, which might be due to the adherence of magnetite nanoparticles to soil and sand grains.
Finally, it is noteworthy that, besides some conclusive studies on TiO2 and ZnO nanoparticles, most of the uptake, translocation, and accumulation studies in plants are reported only up to the germination stage. Hence, the fate of nanoparticles in the plant system is still largely unknown.
Most recent studies support the idea that nanoparticles exert some adverse effects on plants. However, there are a few studies that have suggested that nanoparticles, when delivered in a controlled safe dose, may contribute to promotion of plant growth and yield. For example, multi-walled carbon nanoparticles (MWCNP) have been shown to promote seed germination and growth of tomato and enhance the growth of tobacco cells. The same phenomenon was observed in MWCNTs in mustard plants. Using the so-called germination index and relative time of root elongation as etalon parameters, it was shown that oxidized MWCNPs exert a better effect at lower concentration than non-oxidized ones.
Comparative studies for evaluation of the seed yield and prevention of leaf abscission in borage plant treated with nanosilver and silver nitrate have shown that the former performs better. It is known that the plant hormone ethylene plays a key role in leaf abscission, and silver ions inhibit ethylene by replacing copper ions from the receptors. When the both compounds were applied on the plants through the foliar spray method, it was observed that nanosilver was effective at a lower concentration than silver nitrate. Similar promoting effects of biosynthesized silver nanoparticles on the emergence of seedlings and various plant growth parameters of many economically important plant species have been reported.
Various studies have been performed to clarify the effect of ZnO nanoparticles on the growth of different plants. Thus, a stimulatory effect has been shown on the growth of Vigna radiata and Cicer arietinum. ZnO nanoparticles adsorption on the root surface was observed through correlative light and scanning electron microscopy and adsorption by the seedlings, by inductively coupled plasma/atomic emission spectroscopy. The effect of ZnO nanoparticles on plant cell physiology was investigated using the cellular antioxidant system as a model. Applying the foliar spray method on chickpea seedlings, it was shown that low concentrations of ZnO nanoparticles have a positive effect on plant growth and that the seedlings biomass accumulation has improved, which may be due to lower reactive oxygen species (ROS) levels (evidenced by the lower malondialdehyde content). Field experiments confirmed that application of ZnO nanoparticles at a dose 15-fold lower than the recommended dose of ZnSO4 led to 29.5 % higher pod yield.
Comparable positive effects of ZnO and CeO2 nanoparticles on Cucumis sativus fruit quality have been observed. The application of both nanoparticles resulted in increased starch content and possibly, in an altered carbohydrate pattern.
Stimulation of the antioxidant activity and nitrate reductase by a mixture of SiO2 and TiO2 nanoparticles in G. max has been found, in addition to the better productive effect and increase in water and fertilizer uptake capacity of the model plant. The application of TiO2 nanoparticles has been demonstrated to promote photosynthesis under both visible and ultraviolet light and growth in spinach. An increase of 73 % in dry weight, three-fold higher photosynthetic rate, and 45 % increment in chlorophyll after seed treatment in spinach were observed. The authors speculate that the increment in the photosynthetic rate may be due to the increase in the absorption of inorganic nutrients, which enhances the utilization of organic substances and the quenching of oxygen-free radicals.
Unlike most nanoparticles, whose application at high concentration is not recommended due to the observed negative impact, TiO2 nanoparticles applied at concentrations as high as 2,000 ppm increased the seed germination and seedling vigour in Brassica napus. Hence, different metal nanoparticles obviously show positive influence at various concentration ranges, e.g. Pd and Au at lower concentration, Si and Cu at higher concentration, and Au and Cu in combined mixture. This behavioural patter has been confirmed in field studies with G. max and Brassica juncea: nanocrystalline powder of iron, cobalt, and copper at an extra-low concentration promoted the seed germination rate, and a marked increase in the chlorophyll index, number of nodules, and crop yield was observed. Similarly, foliar spray of gold on plants in field experiments showed positive effects resulting in increased plant height, stem diameter, number of branches, number of pods and seed yield, and, interestingly, improved the redox status of the treated plants.
Undoubtedly nanotechnology has incredible potential to revolutionize many aspects of human life. However, the advancement of this multidisciplinary branch of science, especially the benefits from the practical application of nanoparticles have to be considered with some precautions.
The major concern at world scale is whether the unknown risks of nanoparticles involving their environmental and health impact prevail over their potential benefits. Thus, the risks associated with the application of nanoparticles are yet to be evaluated before the application of nanoparticles is fully accepted and implemented. Hence, “nanotoxicology” has been developed, which is responsible for assessment of the toxicological potential and promoting safe design and use of nanoparticles. Due to the thorough quantitative analysis of the potential health impacts, environmental clearance, and safe disposal of nanoparticles, improvements in the design of further applications of nanotechnology can be anticipated.
No direct human disease has been linked to nanoparticles so far. Nanoparticles, which constitute a part of ultrafine particulate matter, can enter in the body of humans/animal through the oral, respiratory or intradermal route. Currently, there is a common assumption that the small size of nanoparticles allows them to easily enter tissues, cells, and organelles and interact with functional biomolecular structures (i.e. DNA, ribosomes), since the actual physical size of an engineered nanostructure is similar to many biological molecules (e.g. antibodies and proteins) and structures (e.g. viruses).
Of course, there is still a need for proper physicochemical characterization and determination of appropriate exposure protocols and reliable methods for assessing nanoparticles outcome in the environment, their internalization, and their kinetics in living organisms. These are the prerequisites for establishment of optimal experimental conditions that will allow precise determination if a particular nanoparticle poses a threat to human health. However, the interdisciplinary research of materials scientists, environmentalists, and life scientists is contributing to the identification of the true, if any, hazards of nanotechnology. The heterogeneous and developmental nature of nanotechnology is making risk assessment quite subjective. The absence of standardized methodologies and guidelines makes it difficult to compare the safety/toxicity assessments from different research groups. It is most likely that different types of nanoparticles vary as to their toxicological properties. To interpret correctly any toxicological data, it is essential to calculate and determine the expected concentrations of nanoparticles that may be exposed to the biological system or present in the ecosystem. The risk assessment of nanoparticles has to be performed on a case-by case basis. Thus, the ethical issues must be specific for a specified product at a given time, and alternative assessments are needed to take into consideration ethical, social, and political values that relate policies such as those involving nanotechnology.
The use of nanotechnology in agriculture is very important, as it directly affects humans. Nano-fertilizers enable nanoparticles to enter the food chain, allowing their distribution in every organism related to the food chain. Literally all substances can be toxic to plants, animals or humans at some exposure level. However, this does not limit their use in various applications which are formulated minding the critical exposure concentration. As mentioned above, the promoting effect of nanoparticles on plant growth and physiology is expressed at very low concentrations; hence, it is hard to believe that these concentrations will pose significant health and environmental damage.
Many countries have identified the potential of nanotechnology in the food and agriculture sectors. Meanwhile, they recognize the need for assessment of the food safety implications of nanotechnology. As suggested by the scientific committee of the European Food Security Authority (EFSA), “the risk assessment paradigm (hazard identification, hazard characterization, exposure assessment and risk characterization) is applicable for nanoparticles (EFSA Scientific Committee 2011). However, risk assessment of these nanoparticles in the food and feed area should consider the specific properties of the subject nanoparticles in addition to those common to the equivalent non-nanoforms.”
Deciding the risk associated with the use of particular nanoparticles in food and feed means taking into consideration various parameters, among which physicochemical characterization of nanoparticles, their stability in the food and feed, toxicokinetics (absorption, distribution, metabolism/biotransformation, excretion/elimination) within the human and animal systems.
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