A thorough understanding of the implications of chronic low-dose exposure to engineered nanomaterials through the food chain is lacking. The present study aimed to characterize such a response in Cucurbita pepo L. (zucchini) upon exposure to a potential nanoscale fertilizer: copper oxide (CuO) nanoparticles. Zucchini was grown in soil amended with nano-CuO, bulk CuO (100 mg Kg−1), and CuSO4 (320 mg Kg−1) from germination to flowering (60 days). Nano-CuO treatment had no impact on plant morphology or growth nor pollen formation and viability. The uptake of Cu was comparable in the plant tissues under all treatments. RNA-seq analyses on vegetative and reproductive tissues highlighted common and nanoscale-specific components of the response. Mitochondrial and chloroplast functions were uniquely modulated in response to nanomaterial exposure as compared with conventional bulk and salt forms. X-ray absorption spectroscopy showed that the Cu local structure changed upon nano-CuO internalization, suggesting potential nanoparticle biotransformation within the plant tissues. These findings demonstrate the potential positive physiological, cellular, and molecular response related to nano-CuO application as a plant fertilizer, highlighting the differential mechanisms involved in the exposure to Cu in nanoscale, bulk, or salt forms. Nano-CuO uniquely stimulates plant response in a way that can minimize agrochemical inputs to the environment and therefore could be an important strategy in nanoenabled agriculture.
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