Nanoscale compartments are one of the foundational elements of living systems. Capsids, carboxysomes, exosomes, vacuoles and other nanoshells easily self-assemble from biomolecules such as lipids or proteins, but not from inorganic nanomaterials because of difficulties with the replication of spherical tiling. Here we show that stabilizer-free polydispersed inorganic nanoparticles (NPs) can spontaneously organize into porous nanoshells. The association of water-soluble CdS NPs into self-limited spherical capsules is the result of scale-modified electrostatic, dispersion and other colloidal forces. They cannot be accurately described by the Derjaguin–Landau–Vervey–Overbeek theory, whereas molecular-dynamics simulations with combined atomistic and coarse-grained description of NPs reveal the emergence of nanoshells and some of their stabilization mechanisms. Morphology of the simulated assemblies formed under different conditions matched nearly perfectly the transmission electron microscopy tomography data. This study bridges the gap between biological and inorganic self-assembling nanosystems and conceptualizes a new pathway to spontaneous compartmentalization for a wide range of inorganic NPs including those existing on prebiotic Earth.
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