Nanoparticles reveal that human cervicovaginal mucus is riddled with pores larger than viruses

Samuel K. Lai, Ying Ying Wang, Kaoru Hida, Richard Cone, Justin Hanes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

248 Scopus citations


The mechanisms by which mucus helps prevent viruses from infecting mucosal surfaces are not well understood. We engineered non-mucoadhesive nanoparticles of various sizes and used them as probes to determine the spacing between mucin fibers (pore sizes) in fresh undiluted human cervicovaginal mucus (CVM) obtained from volunteers with healthy vaginal microflora. We found that most pores in CVM have diameters significantly larger than human viruses (average pore size 340 ± 70 nm; range approximately 50-1800 nm). This mesh structure is substantially more open than the 15-100-nm spacing expected assuming mucus consists primarily of a random array of individual mucin fibers. Addition of a non-ionic detergent to CVM caused the average pore size to decrease to 130 ± 50 nm. This suggests hydrophobic interactions between lipid-coated "naked" protein regions on mucins normally cause mucin fibers to self-condense and/or bundle with other fibers, creating mucin "cables" at least three times thicker than individual mucin fibers. Although the native mesh structure is not tight enough to trap most viruses, we found that herpes simplex virus (approximately 180 nm) was strongly trapped in CVM, moving at least 8,000-fold slower than non-mucoadhesive 200-nm nanoparticles. This work provides an accurate measurement of the pore structure of fresh, hydrated ex vivo CVM and demonstrates that mucoadhesion, rather than steric obstruction, may be a critical protective mechanism against a major sexually transmitted virus and perhaps other viruses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)598-603
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2010


  • Cervicovaginal tract
  • Herpes simplex virus
  • Hydrophobic interactions
  • Microstructure
  • Particle tracking

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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