3.1. Evaluation of the Cytotoxicity of Nickel Nanoparticles and Other Nickel Compounds Towards Human Skin Cells
The viability of human skin cells exposed to NiNPs was evaluated and compared with that after exposure to other chemical forms of nickel (NiSO4
, NiO, and Ni3
). For this, model human skin cells were incubated with the different chemical compounds in a range of concentrations and the cytotoxicity was quantitatively measured by an MTT assay, as described in the Experimental section. Adult human epidermal keratinocytes were chosen as the cell line model. Keratinocytes are well characterized cells and they were used as cell allergy models elsewhere [18
]. After the MTT assays, the dose-dependent cellular toxicity was determined for each nickel compound. Figure 1
shows the obtained dose-dependent curves.
, NiO, and Ni3
, the dose-response curves could be fitted to sigmoid curves allowing for the determination of the LD50
values (Table 1
). Among the compounds tested, NiO presented the highest toxicity, followed by the two soluble compounds (NiSO4
), which showed similar LD50
values. Surprisingly, the lowest toxicity was observed for nickel subsulfide. Indeed, in an experiment testing 11 Ni compounds, Ni3
was found to be more toxic towards AS52 cells than NiSO4
, and NiO [19
]. In any case, the results showed that even the least toxic Ni3
show certain toxicity towards human skin cells.
For NiNPs, the shape of the dose-response curve was different. The curve was linear, meaning that NiNPs exert a specific toxic effect towards human keratinocytes and that even low doses represent a risk. This kind of behavior, where a threshold dose is not observed, is believed to be typical of genotoxic carcinogens [20
], although some controversy remains [22
]. In our study, the cytotoxicity results agreed with those that were obtained for human skin cells (A431) exposed to nickel nanoparticles [24
]. The genotoxic potential of metallic NiNPs was reported for human skin cells (A431) [24
] and their carcinogenicity for mouse epidermis cells (JB6 cells) [25
]. Note that the NiNPs used in the study with mouse epidermis cells are significantly bigger (92.3 nm) than those used in study with human skin cells and in the present one (52 and 46 nm, respectively). On the other hand, some oxide nanoparticles were reported to show a similar cytotoxicity behavior: TiO2
NPs in mouse fibroblast cells (L929) [26
], silicon dioxide (SiO2
) nanoparticles in human monocytes (THP-1) [27
], and NiO NPs in human bronchoalveolar carcinoma-derived cells (A549) [28
]. In any case, in the present study a cell mortality of around 50% was observed when the incubation was performed with a nickel concentration of 200 mg L−1
3.2. Determination of the Nickel Uptake
Human epidermal keratinocytes were incubated with NiNPs and the two soluble nickel salts (NiCl2
) for 24 h at a nickel dose corresponding to a medium cell mortality in order to study the nickel cellular uptake, as observed in the cytotoxicity study, i.e., 200 mg L−1
for NiNPs and 50 mg L−1
for the two nickel salts. After exposure, the medium was recovered, the cells were washed out with a buffer, and the total nickel content in both fractions was determined by ICPMS. For the experiments with both nickel salts, around 0.2% of the nickel mass added was found in the cells, whereas the rest of the nickel remained in the medium (Table 2
). Good recoveries (>95%) were obtained for both of the experiments.
Regarding the experiment with NiNPs, the corresponding amount of nickel found in the cells was 20 times higher. According to the obtained results, the cells took up 3.71% of the nickel added to the culture. However, the recovery obtained (Ni mass found in the medium plus Ni mass found in cells) for this experiment was very low: 8%. These results can be explained by the fact that the nanoparticles are in suspension and they may settle at the bottom of the flask during cultivation experiments. Therefore, after the treatment, they are not removed when the medium is recovered, but when the cells are rinsed and homogenized. An experiment in which NiNPs were incubated with a medium under the same conditions but without the presence of cells was performed in order to verify this hypothesis. It was found that 91% of nickel nanoparticles stuck to the bottom of the flask and the amount of nanoparticles recovered with the buffer was similar to that obtained in the experiment with cells. As this fact might bias the interpretation of the results obtained for the experiment with NiNPs, it was necessary to fractionate the cell and study the distribution of the nickel content among the different subcellular fractions in order to confirm that the nickel from NiNPs was taken up by the cells and, at the same time, to identify the target organelles of nickel.
Keratinocytes were incubated with NiCl2
at a dose corresponding to a medium mortality during 24 h. After the treatment, the homogenate of cells was removed from the flask and the following subcellular fractions were collected after serial centrifugation and ultracentrifugation: nuclear fraction, mitochondrial fraction, microsomal fraction, and cytosolic fraction. ICPMS determined the total nickel content in each fraction. It was found that nickel was mainly located inside the cytosol (almost 90% of the total nickel present in the initial homogenate), whereas the amount of nickel in the nucleus corresponding to 5% of the total Ni is so small that the assessment of its chemical form is below the capacity of any state-of-the art analytical technique, including this developed in this study. This result is in good agreement with other studies that were conducted with HaCaT keratinocytes that showed that nickel (in the form of NiCl2
) was mainly accumulated in the cytosolic fraction [29
]. Regarding NiNPs, the nickel present in the nucleus and in the mitochondria account for 10% of the intracellular nickel and the nickel amount between nucleus and mitochondria was not discriminated. The cytosol was found to be the target organelle of nickel and it was the objective of the subsequent study, according to these results.
A significant amount of nickel (1.96 µg) was found in the cytosol of cells that were treated with NiNPs, confirming that keratinocytes were able to take up nickel when put in contact with a suspension of NiNPs and store it in the cytosol. In comparison with the results obtained for the cytosol of cells treated with soluble nickel salts (0.21 and 0.17 µg for NiCl2
, respectively), the amount of nickel found was four times higher, which correlates with the amount of nickel added: 1000 µg for the experiment with NiNPs vs. 250 µg for the experiments with nickel salts. However, the mass of nickel that was found in cytosols was significantly lower than the mass of nickel that was determined in the nickel homogenate (37.1 µg, Table 2
), which again suggests that the majority of nickel found in the homogenate does not correspond to intracellular nickel.
In the next step, ICPMS determined the total nickel content in cytosols from cells treated with NiNPs and the other nickel compounds at two different doses (low and medium mortality) and two different incubation times (24 h and 4 h) after ultracentrifugation. For comparison purposes, results obtained results were normalized and expressed as % of nickel found in cytosol with respect to the total amount of nickel added (Figure 2
). As expected, the percentage of nickel present in cytosols of cells treated with NiNPs increased when increasing the incubation time from 4 h to 24 h, a behavior that was also observed for the other nickel compounds. However, for the same incubation time, a higher percentage of nickel was found in cytosols of cells treated with the lower dose of nickel: 0.23% of nickel for a dose corresponding to low mortality against 0.20% of nickel for a dose corresponding to medium mortality. This behavior, which was not observed for the soluble nickel compounds, NiCl2
, suggests that the toxicity of NiNPs is not related to the amount of intracellular Ni.
The results that were obtained for NiO and Ni3
) show that the highest amount of nickel in cytosols was found after the treatment with NiO, which agrees with the fact that NiO was the compound that showed the highest toxicity among all of the studied compounds (Table 1
). However, no significant differences were found between the percentages of nickel found in cytosols that were treated with Ni3
, despite their different toxicities, which makes us conclude that the toxicity of the different nickel compounds is not solely explained by the amount of nickel present in cytosol.
3.3. Physicochemical Form of Ni in Cell Cytosols
Even though the results that were obtained in the experiments with NiNPs clearly confirmed that the cells took up a significant amount of nickel, the physicochemical form of this nickel present in the cytosol is unclear. From a toxicological and molecular point of view, it is essential to know whether nickel is able to enter the cell in the form of nanoparticles. The cytosols treated with NiNPs were analysed directly by single particle inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (SP-ICPMS) in order to answer this question. This technique can discriminate between the nanoparticulate and the dissolved form [31
]. The time scan obtained only showed a steady signal characteristic of the presence of Ni in dissolved form [33
] (Figure S2
). However, pulses with intensities above the background, typical of the presence of nanoparticles, were not observed. If NiNPs were present in the cell, then the use of SP-ICPMS after sonication would still allow the detection of individual nanoparticles without agglomeration, as it was recently shown in literature [34
Consequently, it can be concluded that all of the nickel present in cytosols comes from the oxidation/dissolution of the nanoparticles. Other metallic nanoparticles were also reported to dissolve in cellular growth media, such as silver nanoparticles (AgNPs) in Dulbecco’s Modified Eagle Medium (DMEM) [36
] or in Rosewell Park Memorial Institute (RPMI) media [39
]. The fact that all nickel present in cytosols was found in its dissolved form due to the dissolution of NiNPs perhaps explaining the results observed in this study. For the nickel soluble salts, all of the nickel is available for cells immediately upon addition (and hence the higher the concentration, the higher nickel available), whereas, in the case of NiNPs, the availability of nickel ions depends on the dissolution of nanoparticles. Therefore, the uptake of nickel by cells is ruled by a kinetic process and, as it was shown for other metallic nanoparticles, such as AgNPs, the ion release rate increases when the concentration of nanoparticles decreases [40
]. The relative number of nickel ions released and, hence, available for the cells, was higher in the case of the experiment with a lower concentration of NiNPs (corresponding to low mortality) when compared with the experiment with a higher concentration, which explains why the percentage of nickel found was higher in the former experiment (Figure 2
). On the other hand, the cytotoxicity of NiNPs might be linked to the dissolution and release of metallic ions, as it was suggested for other metallic nanoparticles, such as AgNPs [41
], which may also explain the observed linear dose-response curve (Figure 1
). For instance, a similar behaviour that was found for ZnO NPs was related to the cytosolic concentration of Zn2+
as well as to an apoptotic death pathway [42
]. At this stage of research, the cause of cell death remains unknown, although apoptosis was shown to be the underlying mechanism used by ZnO NPs to induce cell death.
3.4. Separation of Ni-Binding Compounds
Once in the cytosol, nickel is likely to be bound to molecules already present or produced by the cells. The characterization and identification of these molecules is necessary to understand the molecular mechanisms of nickel toxicity. In this context, different analytical approaches were developed in order to separate, characterize, and identify the Ni-binding compounds present in cytosols of cells treated with NiNPs and the other nickel compounds.
In the first approach, size exclusion chromatography was used for the separation of the proteins. Cytosols that were treated with NiNPs, NiCl2
, and NiSO4
under the same conditions that were used in the study of the nickel uptake were injected onto a size exclusion column Superdex 200 coupled to UV-Vis and ICPMS detectors. Since similar chromatograms were obtained for the two nickel (NiCl2
) salts, the chromatograms obtained for NiNPs were only compared with NiCl2
. Figure 3
shows the chromatograms obtained of cytosols of cells treated with both nickel compounds at different concentrations and incubations times. Regarding the statistical significance, the reproducibility of SEC chromatograms is +/−5% in terms of intensity and 2% in terms of elution time. The chromatograms (peaks) fitting this range were considered to be identical and are marked with an asterisk in Figure 3
All of the chromatograms show a peak at a retention time of around 30 min. (peak II, corresponding to a compound of 1.4 kDa), whereas an additional peak eluting at around 26 min. (peak I, corresponding to a compound of 6.8 kDa) was only observed under some conditions. When comparing cytosols that were treated with both compounds, chromatograms were similar, except for the case of cells that were treated for 4 h at a dose corresponding to medium mortality, where the intensity was significantly higher for NiNPs (Figure 3
a). This is in good agreement with the amount of Ni found in cytosols for the experiment with NiNPs (1.60 µg) as compared with the one that was found for the experiment with NiCl2
(0.09 µg). On the other hand, the differences between nickel doses were significant, as can be observed in Figure 3
b. Peak I was observed for cytosols of cells that were treated with a nickel dose corresponding to medium mortality, whereas it was not observed, or it was not significant in cytosols of cells treated with a low nickel concentration (corresponding to low mortality), suggesting that this cytosolic compound is involved in the mechanisms of nickel toxicity. In addition, in the case of NiNPs, a significant increase in the intensity of peak II was observed for an increased nickel dose (1.96 and 0.12 µg of Ni found in cytosols for medium and low toxicity experiments, respectively), which was not the case in the case of cytosols that were treated with NiCl2
. Finally, the comparison of chromatograms showed that the intensity of peaks I and II increased as a function of incubation time. This is especially significant in the case of peak I, whose intensity is higher than that of peak II for cytosols treated at a dose of medium mortality during 24 h (0.53 and 1.96 µg of Ni found in cytosols for NiCl2
and NiNPs experiments, respectively).
In addition, cytosols from control cells (i.e., incubated under the same conditions, but without the presence of nickel) were spiked with Ni2+
and the cytosolic compounds were separated by size exclusion chromatography in the same conditions as the samples. Taking a look to the chromatogram obtained (Figure 4
), peak I, which is present in the sample of cells that were treated with NiNPs at a nickel dose corresponding to medium mortality and 24 h incubation time was not observed in the cytosol of control cells spiked with Ni2+
. This result shows that the compound that is responsible for the presence of this peak is not naturally present in cytosol, and it is only expressed by cells under stress in the presence of high doses of nickel. The peak (black line) observed in Figure 4
corresponds to a nickel-binding species that is present in the control cytosol of keratinocytes. For this reason, its identity was not investigated.
3.5. Identification of the Ni-Binding Compound Expressed by Keratinocytes
An analytical strategy was developed in order to identify the compound that was differentially expressed by human keratinocytes in the presence of NiNPs. The developed strategy consisted of a second chromatographic separation step coupled in parallel with ICPMS and a high-resolution electrospray mass spectrometer (ESI-FT-MSn). ICPMS allowed for monitoring the nickel signal of the complex, whereas ESI-FT-MS/MS provided the identity of the nickel-binding protein.
A better resolution of the two peaks observed is needed before performing a second dimension chromatographic step for the identification of the nickel-binding compounds corresponding to peak I. It was achieved by using a Superdex 75 column. At the same conditions of carrier composition and flow rate, a chromatogram with the peaks well resolved was obtained for cytosols of cells treated with NiNPs at a dose of medium toxicity and 24 h incubation time (Insert in Figure 5
). In addition, cytosols from cells that were treated with NiO and Ni3
were also analyzed by SEC-ICPMS with the Superdex 75 column (data not shown). In the case of NiO, the presence of a cytosolic compound differentially expressed by the cells was observed, even after 4 h of incubation time, which was not the case of the experiments that were carried out with the other nickel compounds. The fact that NiO was found to be the nickel compound with the highest cytotoxicity might explain the expression of this protein by the cells, even at low incubation time. On the other hand, the peak I was not observed for the treatments with Ni3
, even at a dose of medium mortality and 24 h of incubation time, which might be related with the low toxicity that was found for this compound.
For the identification of the Ni-binding compound expressed by keratinocytes, the cytosol of a sample that was treated with NiNPs at 24 h incubation time at a dose corresponding to medium cell viability was fractionated on the Superdex 75 SEC column. The fraction corresponding to peak I was collected, concentrated, and subsequently analyzed by HILIC coupled to ICPMS. HILIC provides an efficient separation for small polar compounds, keeping the metal-biomolecule complex intact [43
]. Figure 5
shows the chromatogram obtained for the SEC fraction collected from cytosols of cells treated with NiNPs; the main peak corresponds to the nickel-binding compounds of interest.
An aliquot of this SEC fraction was analyzed by HILIC coupled to ESI-FTMS under the same separation conditions. Unfortunately, no signal of a Ni-bioligand compound was obtained, which was probably due to the low protein concentration in the sample. However, the use of in chip-based electrospray ionization (NanoMate) allowed for the splitting of the flow at the exit of the column, the collection of the fraction at the retention time of the Ni-compound, and its subsequent analysis in chip-based infusion MS. Figure 6
shows the deconvoluted mass spectrum corresponding to a polypeptide of a molecular weight of 5810.13344 Da. The comparison of the molecular weight measured vs. the theoretical one (5810.0996 Da) resulted in a mass difference of 5.82 ppm. Note that a post column acidification was applied in order to remove Ni from the complex to facilitate the electrospray ionization at the retention time of the Ni-compound, as discussed elsewhere for the identification of metal-binding proteins by ESI MS [44
]. Consequently, the observed molecular mass corresponds to the polypeptide ligand. Figure 6
b shows the MS/MS fragmentation spectrum that was obtained by using high-energy collisional dissociation (HCD) fragmentation mode.
The MS and MS2
fragmentation data (the whole list of fragments obtained is available as Supplementary File
) were processed through an untargeted Top-Down proteomics approach and different fragments were obtained (Table 3
). The MS2
was zoomed at the vicinity of each of the fragments shown in Table 3
and, thus, 16 zooms were collected and are shown in Figure 6
c. These fragments allowed for the identification of the polypeptide sequence that is shown in Figure 7
. The sequence is related to a protein expressed by human epidermal cells: tumor protein p63-regulated gene 1 (TPRG-1) [45
]. An open question is whether this polypeptide corresponds to the truncated isoform of the TPRG1 protein or is an enzymatic cleavage fragment. Anyhow, this question is secondary and it should not eclipse the finding that a TPRG1-related polypeptide is expressed in response to the NiNPs stress. Moreover, the truncated isoform (or its enzymatic cleavage fragment) binds strongly to nickel to let the complex pass through an HPLC column. To our knowledge, such stable polypeptide-metal complexes have not been reported from products of enzymatic cleavage, so the occurrence of a new truncated isoform of the TPRG1 protein has been assumed. Note that the binding of Ni occurs in the absence of a H2C2, which is a common Zn-finger domain that also binds Ni(II). The key to this binding is probably the presence of histidine residue and the fact that there is only one make the binding weak. Note that the binding of Ni to polypeptides containing a single histidine was reported elsewhere [46