How to Characterize Gold Nanoparticles’ Surface?

Guest post by Elena Colangelo

Our Topical Review on the characterization of gold nanoparticles (GNPs) has just been published in the Bionconjugate Chemistry Special Issue “Interfacing Inorganic Nanoparticles with Biology”.

The literature is abounding in works on GNPs for applications in biology, catalysis and sensing, among others. GNPs’ appeal resides in their optical properties, together with the well-developed methods of synthesis available and the possibility of functionalizing their surface with small molecules of interest, which can readily self-assemble on the GNPs’ surface forming a monolayer.

However, allegedly the structure and organization of self-assembled monolayers (SAMs) at the GNPs’ surface are in fact aspects too often neglected [though surely not on this blog; RL]. Such elucidation is challenging experimentally, but it is crucial not only to ensure reproducibility, but also to design nanosystems with defined (bio)physicochemical and structural properties, which could then be envisioned to assemble in more complex systems from a “bottom-up” approach.

Our Topical Review gives an overview of the current knowledge and methods available to characterize the GNPs’ surface with different molecular details.


Cartoon illustrating the different levels of GNPs’ surface characterization discussed in the Topical Review.

First, the experimental methods commonly used to provide the basic characterization of functionalized GNPs, such as identification and quantification of the ligands within the monolayer, are detailed with the aid of some examples.

Second, the experimental methods providing information on the monolayer thickness and compactness are reviewed.

Third, considering that the SAM’s thickness and compactness do not only depend on the amount of ligands within the monolayer, but also on their conformation, the experimental methods that can provide such insights are recapitulated. However, we also stressed on the limitations intrinsic to these methods and on the challenges associated to the determination of the structure of SAMs on GNPs.

Fourth, we summarized some of the approaches used to give insights into the organization of different ligands within a SAM. Indeed, mixed SAMs on GNPs are useful since they can impart to the nanoparticles different functionalities and offer a way to tune their stability.

Fifth, highlighting again the limited insights into the SAM’s structure and organization that can be gathered with experimental techniques, we detailed some examples where a combination of experimental and computational approaches was able to provide a compelling description of the system and to assess molecular details that could not have been revealed experimentally.

Overall, this Topical Review gives emphasis on the importance of GNPs’ surface characterization and on fact that even though a number of experimental techniques are available, they are intrinsically limited and they cannot provide a fully detailed picture. Hence, it is advantageous to combine experimental and theoretical approaches to design nanoparticles with desired (bio)physicochemical properties [such as, e.g., our paper under review, currently available as a preprint; RL].

Nanoparticles for imaging and sensing in biology

This is the title of a 3x1H45 course which I will give early September at the European School On Nanosciences and Nanotechnologies (ESONN) in Grenoble. The focus is on inorganic nanoparticles, e.g. gold, silver, iron oxide, quantum dots for biological applications. It will be the third year I give this course. It is a small class format with 21 students coming from all over the world, from New Zealand to South Africa, Denmark, Italy, India and France.

I have opted for a mostly discussion-based format centered around selected publications. I am asking readers of this blog (optional but very much welcome!) as well as students registered for the track B of ESONN15 (mandatory) to suggest at least one article for discussion. To suggest a paper, simply add a comment to this post with a reference (link to the paper would be even better).

Papers can be selected because they are historic landmarks in the field; or because they are recent ground breaking discoveries; or because they raise important questions that we need to discuss to move forward. Please provide one or two lines of justification for why you think we should discuss this paper.

Over to you!

What can we Learn by Watching Cells Moving Towards a Magnet?

Andor has just published a technical note from Lara Bogart. That follows from their visit of our lab a couple of weeks ago.

Lara Bogart from Raphael Levy’s research group at the Institute of Integrative Biology in University of Liverpool is interested in understanding how magnetic nanoparticles interact with cells; this is important for a range of biomedical applications including diagnosis of disease, hyperthermia therapy and stem cell tracking applications.

Read on.