Open Access Research

Carbon nanoparticles induce ceramide- and lipid raft-dependent signalling in lung epithelial cells: a target for a preventive strategy against environmentally-induced lung inflammation

Henrike Peuschel1, Ulrich Sydlik1, Susanne Grether-Beck1, Ingo Felsner1, Daniel Stöckmann1, Sascha Jakob1, Matthias Kroker1, Judith Haendeler1, Marijan Gotić2, Christiane Bieschke1, Jean Krutmann1 and Klaus Unfried1*

Author Affiliations

1 IUF Leibniz-Institut für Umweltmedizinische Forschung, Auf'm Hennekamp 50, 40225, Düsseldorf, Germany

2 Department of Material Chemistry Institute Ruđer Bosković, Zagreb, Croatia

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Particle and Fibre Toxicology 2012, 9:48  doi:10.1186/1743-8977-9-48

Published: 10 December 2012



Particulate air pollution in lung epithelial cells induces pathogenic endpoints like proliferation, apoptosis, and pro-inflammatory reactions. The activation of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) is a key event responsible for signalling events involving mitogen activated protein kinases specific for these endpoints. The molecular events leading to receptor activation however are not well understood. These events are relevant for the toxicological evaluation of inhalable particles as well as for potential preventive strategies in situations when particulate air pollution cannot be avoided. The current study therefore had the objective to elucidate membrane-coupled events leading to EGFR activation and the subsequent signalling cascade in lung epithelial cells. Furthermore, we aimed to identify the molecular target of ectoine, a biophysical active substance which we described to prevent carbon nanoparticle-induced lung inflammation.


Membrane signalling events were investigated in isolated lipid rafts from lung epithelial cells with regard to lipid and protein content of the signalling platforms. Using positive and negative intervention approaches, lipid raft changes, subsequent signalling events, and lung inflammation were investigated in vitro in lung epithelial cells (RLE-6TN) and in vivo in exposed animals.


Carbon nanoparticle treatment specifically led to an accumulation of ceramides in lipid rafts. Detailed analyses demonstrated a causal link of ceramides and subsequent EGFR activation coupled with a loss of the receptor in the lipid raft fractions. In vitro and in vivo investigations demonstrate the relevance of these events for carbon nanoparticle-induced lung inflammation. Moreover, the compatible solute ectoine was able to prevent ceramide-mediated EGFR phosphorylation and subsequent signalling as well as lung inflammation in vivo.


The data identify a so far unknown event in pro-inflammatory signalling and contribute to the understanding of particle cell interaction and therefore to risk identification and risk assessment of inhalable xenobiotics. Moreover, as this cellular reaction can be prevented by the well tolerated substance ectoine, a molecular preventive strategy for susceptible persons against airway inflammation is proposed.

Carbon black; Air pollution; Epidermal growth factor receptor; c-src; Alpha-tocopherol; Ectoine; compatible solutes