Man-made nanoparticles produce beneficial characteristics in products ranging from sunscreen to smart electronics. But are they safe if they get into the environment?

Surprisingly, scientists don’t know. To find out, they must first determine how nanoparticles interact with living cells.

Rebecca Klaper, a professor of freshwater sciences, is part of a research team that received a grant worth nearly $20 million from the National Science Foundation to investigate that question.

If scientists can determine which particles are harmful and why, they may be able to alter their chemistry to render them less toxic, Klaper said. “Our mission is to make them ‘benign by design,’ meaning from the beginning, the particle will have no impact on the environment before it goes into a product.”