Percolation transition prescribes protein size-specific barrier to passive transport through the nuclear pore complex.
Nuclear pore complexes (NPCs) control biomolecular transport in and out of the nucleus. Disordered nucleoporins in the complex's pore form a permeation barrier, preventing unassisted transport of large biomolecules. Here, we combine coarse-grained simulations of experimentally derived NPC structures with a theoretical model to determine the microscopic mechanism of passive transport. Brute-force simulations of protein transport reveal telegraph-like behavior, where prolonged diffusion on one side of the NPC is interrupted by rapid crossings to the other. We rationalize this behavior using a theoretical model that reproduces the energetics and kinetics of permeation solely from statistics of transient voids within the disordered mesh. As the protein size increases, the mesh transforms from a soft to a hard barrier, enabling orders-of-magnitude reduction in permeation rate for proteins beyond the percolation size threshold. Our model enables exploration of alternative NPC architectures and sets the stage for uncovering molecular mechanisms of facilitated nuclear transport.