Protein corona formation on PEG-ylated DLin-MC3-DMA LNPs is key to their cellular uptake and mRNA delivery. Uptake requires active serum proteins and precedes after a significant (~2 hours) lag-time, which we show can be eliminated by pre-incubating L
Development of efficient lipid nanoparticle (LNP) vectors remains a major challenge towards broad clinical translation of RNA therapeutics. New lipids will be required, but also better understanding LNP interactions with the biological environment. Herein, we model protein corona formation on PEG-ylated DLin-MC3-DMA LNPs and identify time-dependent maturation steps that critically unlock their cellular uptake and mRNA delivery. Uptake requires active serum proteins and precedes after a significant (~2 hours) lag-time, which we show can be eliminated by pre-incubating LNPs for 3-4 hours in serum-containing media. This indicates an important role of protein corona maturation for the pharmacokinetic effects of these LNPs. We show, using single-nanoparticle imaging, NMR diffusometry, SANS, and proteomics, that the LNPs, upon serum exposure, undergo rapid PEG-shedding (~30 minutes), followed by a slower rearrangement of the adsorbed protein layer. The PEG-shedding coincides in time with high surface abundance of Apolipoprotein A-II, whereas the LNPs preferentially bind Apolipoprotein E when their maximum uptake-competent state is reached. Finally, we show that pre-incubation of the LNPs enables rapid uptake and allows pulse-chase video-microscopy colocalization experiments with sufficiently short pulse durations to gain improved mechanistic understanding of how intracellular trafficking events determine delivery efficacy, emphasizing early endosomes as important delivery-mediating compartments.