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].

How to Elucidate the Structure of Peptide Monolayers on Gold Nanoparticles?

I have recently submitted my PhD thesis and we have now pre-printed on bioRxiv the work constituting its major chapter. Together with the pre-print, the data have been made publicly available in an online repository of the University of Liverpool. Well isn’t it perfect timing that this week is open access week? 😉

This work has been conducted nearly entirely during the 2 years of my PhD spent at the A*STAR Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) and at the A*STAR Institute of High Performance Computing (IHPC) in Singapore.

In this study, peptide-capped gold nanoparticles are considered, which offer the possibility of combining the optical properties of the gold core and the biochemical properties of the peptides.

In the past, short peptides have been specifically designed to form self-assembled monolayers on gold nanoparticles. Thus, such approach was described as constituting a potential route towards the preparation of protein-like nanosystems. In other words, peptide-capped gold nanoparticles can be depicted as building-blocks which could potentially be assembled to form artificial protein-like objects using a “bottom-up” approach.

However, the structural characterization of the peptide monolayer at the gold nanoparticles’ surface, essential to envision the design of building-blocks with well-defined secondary structure motifs and properties, is poorly investigated and remains challenging to assess experimentally.

In the pre-printed manuscript, we present a molecular dynamics computational model for peptide-capped gold nanoparticles, which was developed using systems characterized by mean of IR spectroscopy as a benchmark. In particular, we investigated the effect of the peptide capping density and the gold nanoparticle size on the structure of self-assembled monolayers constituted of either CALNN or CFGAILSS peptide.

The computational results were found not only to well-reproduce the experimental ones, but also to provide insights at the molecular level into the monolayer’s structure and organization, e.g., the peptides’ arrangement within secondary structure domains on the gold nanoparticle, which could not have been assessed with experimental techniques.

Overall, we believe that the proposed computational model will not only be used to predict the structure of peptide monolayers on gold nanoparticles, thus helping in the design of bio-nanomaterials with well-defined structural properties, but will also be combined to experimental findings, in order to obtain a compelling understanding of the monolayer’s structure and organization.

In this sense, we would like to stress that, in order to improve data reproducibility, enable further analysis and the use of the proposed computational model for peptide-capped gold nanoparticles, we are making the data and the custom-written software to assemble and analyse the systems publicly available.


Snapshots of the final structure of the simulated 5 (left) and 10 (right) nm CFGAILSS-capped gold nanoparticle, illustrating different content and organization of secondary structure motifs.

Chemistry World covers stripes controversy

Simon Hadlington writes:

A prickly controversy has erupted in the rarefied world of nanoscience revolving around the strength of the evidence that molecules can assemble themselves into discrete stripes around gold nanoparticles. The issue highlights the difficulty of interpreting images of nanoscale objects.

Read on.