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Self-assembly of regular hollow icosahedra in salt-free catanionic solutions


Self-assembled structures having a regular hollow icosahedral form (such as those observed for proteins of virus capsids) can occur as a result of biomineralization processes1, but are extremely rare in mineral crystallites2. Compact icosahedra made from a boron oxide have been reported3, but equivalent structures made of synthetic organic components such as surfactants have not hitherto been observed. It is, however, well known that lipids, as well as mixtures of anionic and cationic single chain surfactants, can readily form bilayers4,5 that can adopt a variety of distinct geometric forms: they can fold into soft vesicles or random bilayers (the so-called sponge phase) or form ordered stacks of flat or undulating membranes6. Here we show that in salt-free mixtures of anionic and cationic surfactants, such bilayers can self-assemble into hollow aggregates with a regular icosahedral shape. These aggregates are stabilized by the presence of pores located at the vertices of the icosahedra. The resulting structures have a size of about one micrometre and mass of about 1010 daltons, making them larger than any known icosahedral protein assembly7 or virus capsid8. We expect the combination of wall rigidity and holes at vertices of these icosahedral aggregates to be of practical value for controlled drug or DNA release.

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Figure 1: Electron microscopy images of icosahedral aggregates.
Figure 2: Comparison of freeze-fracture (a) and cryo-TEM (b) images for two adjacent aggregates.
Figure 3: Scattering by dilute solutions of icosahedra.
Figure 4: Sketch of the aggregate structure.


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We thank G. Sukhorukov and O. Tiourina for help in confocal optical microscopy, and I. Erk for cryo-TEM. We also thank J.-L. Sikorav, P. Timmins and B. W. Ninham for critical reading of the manuscript and suggestions.

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Dubois, M., Demé, B., Gulik-Krzywicki, T. et al. Self-assembly of regular hollow icosahedra in salt-free catanionic solutions. Nature 411, 672–675 (2001).

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