Penetration of lipid membranes by gold nanoparticles: insights into cellular uptake, cytotoxicity, and their relationship

ACS Nano. 2010 Sep 28;4(9):5421-9. doi: 10.1021/nn1010792.


Nanoparticle penetration into cell membranes is an interesting phenomenon that may have crucial implications on the nanoparticles' biomedical applications. In this paper, a coarse-grained model for gold nanoparticles (AuNPs) is developed (verified against experimental data available) to simulate their interactions with model lipid membranes. Simulations reveal that AuNPs with different signs and densities of surface charges spontaneously adhere to the bilayer surface or penetrate into the bilayer interior. The potential of mean force calculations show that the energy gains upon adhesion or penetration is significant. In the case of penetration, it is found that defective areas are induced across the entire surface of the upper leaflet of the bilayer and a hydrophilic pore that transports water molecules was formed with its surrounding lipids highly disordered. Penetration and its concomitant membrane disruptions can be a possible mechanism of the two observed phenomena in experiments: AuNPs bypass endocytosis during their internalization into cells and cytotoxicity of AuNPs. It is also found that both the level of penetration and membrane disruption increase as the charge density of the AuNP increases, but in different manners. The findings suggest a way of controlling the AuNP-cell interactions by manipulating surface charge densities of AuNPs to achieve designated goals in their biomedical applications, such as striking a balance between their cellular uptake and cytotoxicity in order to achieve optimal delivery efficiency as delivery agents.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Transport
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Membrane / chemistry
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism*
  • Gold / chemistry
  • Gold / metabolism*
  • Gold / toxicity*
  • Humans
  • Lipid Bilayers / chemistry
  • Lipid Bilayers / metabolism*
  • Metal Nanoparticles / chemistry*
  • Metal Nanoparticles / toxicity*
  • Molecular Conformation
  • Molecular Dynamics Simulation*
  • Surface Properties
  • Thermodynamics


  • Lipid Bilayers
  • Gold