Inhibition of the proteasome activity by graphene oxide contributes to its cytotoxicity

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Due to its hydrophobicity and other unique physicochemical properties, graphene oxide (GO) has been extensively utilized in various biological applications. However, introducing nanomaterials into the biological environment may raise serious risk in terms of nanotoxicity, leading to some unintended changes to the structure and the function of other biomolecules. This study investigates the interaction of GO with the ubiquitin–proteasome system, one of the essential machineries in the cellular metabolism, using a combination of experimental and computational approaches. The experimental results show that GO could adsorb the 20S proteasome, causing a dose-dependent suppression of the proteolytic activity of proteasome. This adverse effect eventually disturbed other important cellular activities relevant to cell cycle and survival. Meanwhile, the molecular dynamics simulations revealed that when 20S proteasome was adsorbed onto the graphene surface, the central gate in the outer ring (α-subunit) for the entry and the exit of the peptide ligand to the protease active site was effectively blocked. These findings of GO induced functional disturbance of 20S proteasome provides a novel perspective to understand the molecular mechanism of GO’s cytotoxicity, which might further promote applications of GO in potential therapies for various cancers due to the abnormal elevation of the relevant proteasome activities.