Physics of the nuclear pore complex: Theory, modeling and experiment

Bart W. Hoogenboom*, Loren E. Hough, Edward A. Lemke, Roderick Y.H. Lim, Patrick R. Onck, Anton Zilman*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

37 Citations (Scopus)
378 Downloads (Pure)


The hallmark of eukaryotic cells is the nucleus that contains the genome, enclosed by a physical barrier known as the nuclear envelope (NE). On the one hand, this compartmentalization endows the eukaryotic cells with high regulatory complexity and flexibility. On the other hand, it poses a tremendous logistic and energetic problem of transporting millions of molecules per second across the nuclear envelope, to facilitate their biological function in all compartments of the cell. Therefore, eukaryotes have evolved a molecular “nanomachine” known as the Nuclear Pore Complex (NPC). Embedded in the nuclear envelope, NPCs control and regulate all the bi-directional transport between the cell nucleus and the cytoplasm. NPCs combine high molecular specificity of transport with high throughput and speed, and are highly robust with respect to molecular noise and structural perturbations. Remarkably, the functional mechanisms of NPC transport are highly conserved among eukaryotes, from yeast to humans, despite significant differences in the molecular components among various species. The NPC is the largest macromolecular complex in the cell. Yet, despite its significant complexity, it has become clear that its principles of operation can be largely understood based on fundamental physical concepts, as have emerged from a combination of experimental methods of molecular cell biology, biophysics, nanoscience and theoretical and computational modeling. Indeed, many aspects of NPC function can be recapitulated in artificial mimics with a drastically reduced complexity compared to biological pores. We review the current physical understanding of the NPC architecture and function, with the focus on the critical analysis of experimental studies in cells and artificial NPC mimics through the lens of theoretical and computational models. We also discuss the connections between the emerging concepts of NPC operation and other areas of biophysics and bionanotechnology.

Original languageEnglish
JournalPhysics Reports
Early online date27-Jun-2021
Publication statusPublished - 25-Jul-2021


  • Biomimetic
  • Crowding
  • Diffusion
  • Intrinsically disordered proteins
  • Molecular dynamics
  • Molecular modeling
  • Multivalency
  • Nanochannels
  • Nuclear pore complex
  • Stochastic transport


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