Nanoscale Mechanism of Molecular Transport through the Nuclear Pore Complex As Studied by Scanning Electrochemical Microscopy

The nuclear pore complex (NPC) is the proteinaceous nanopore that solely mediates molecular transport across the nuclear envelope between the nucleus and cytoplasm of a eukaryotic cell. Small molecules (<40 kDa) diffuse through the large pore of this multiprotein complex. A passively impermeable macromolecule tagged with a signal peptide is chaperoned through the nanopore by nuclear transport receptors (e.g., importins) owing to their interactions with barrier-forming proteins. Presently, this bimodal transport mechanism is not well understood and is described by controversial models. Herein, we report on a dynamic and spatially resolved mechanism for NPC-mediated molecular transport through nanoscale central and peripheral routes with distinct permeabilities. Specifically, we develop a nanogap-based approach of scanning electrochemical microscopy to precisely measure the extremely high permeability of the nuclear envelope to a small probe molecule, (ferrocenylmethyl)­trimethylammonium. Effective medium theories indicate that the passive permeability of 5.9 × 10–2 cm/s corresponds to the free diffusion of the probe molecule through ∼22 nanopores with a radius of 24 nm and a length of 35 nm. Peripheral routes are blocked by wheat germ agglutinin to yield 2-fold lower permeability for 17 nm-radius central routes. This lectin is also used in fluorescence assays to find that importins facilitate the transport of signal-tagged albumin mainly through the 7 nm-thick peripheral route rather than through the sufficiently large central route. We propose that this spatial selectivity is regulated by the conformational changes in barrier-forming proteins that transiently and locally expand the impermeably thin peripheral route while blocking the central route.