Anionic, monolayer-protected gold nanoparticles (AuNPs) have been shown to nondisruptively penetrate cellular membranes. Here, we show that a critical first step in the penetration process is potentially the fusion of such AuNPs with lipid bilayers. Free energy calculations, experiments on unilamellar and multilamellar vesicles, and cell studies all support this hypothesis. Furthermore, we show that fusion is only favorable for AuNPs with core diameters below a critical size that depends on the monolayer composition.
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