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Electrostatically gated membrane permeability in inorganic protocells


Although several strategies are now available to produce functional microcompartments analogous to primitive cell-like structures, little progress has been made in generating protocell constructs with self-controlled membrane permeability. Here we describe the preparation of water-dispersible colloidosomes based on silica nanoparticles and delineated by a continuous semipermeable inorganic membrane capable of self-activated, electrostatically gated permeability. We use crosslinking and covalent grafting of a pH-responsive copolymer to generate an ultrathin elastic membrane that exhibits selective release and uptake of small molecules. This behaviour, which depends on the charge of the copolymer coronal layer, serves to trigger enzymatic dephosphorylation reactions specifically within the protocell aqueous interior. This system represents a step towards the design and construction of alternative types of artificial chemical cells and protocell models based on spontaneous processes of inorganic self-organization.

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Figure 1: Chemical construction of water-dispersible aqueous inorganic microcompartments with self-activated gated membrane permeability.
Figure 2: Optical micrographs of silica nanoparticle-stabilized aqueous microcompartments.
Figure 3: Release properties of inorganic cell-like microstructures.
Figure 4: Uptake properties of crosslinked copolymer-functionalized colloidosomes.
Figure 5: Enzyme-mediated dephosphorylation in inorganic protocells.


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We thank Parogle Technologies Ltd for a Collaborative Award in Science and Engineering (CASE) funded studentship for R.L.H, and A. Peacock (Centre for Materials Discovery, University of Liverpool) for running GPC samples. We thank the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the European Research Council (Advanced Grant scheme) for financial support. This paper is dedicated to the memory of J.V.M.W.

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M.L. and S.M. conceived the concept, S.M. directed the research, M.L., R.L.H. and J.V.M.W. designed and performed the experiments and analysed the data, and B.P.B. contributed the surface-active nanoparticles and discussions on colloid science. All the authors participated in writing the paper.

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Correspondence to Mei Li or Stephen Mann.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Li, M., Harbron, R., Weaver, J. et al. Electrostatically gated membrane permeability in inorganic protocells. Nature Chem 5, 529–536 (2013).

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